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Seasonal Affective Disorder: How Exercise Benefits Mental Health and Improves Mood

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is related to seasonal changes. Most people with SAD have symptoms that begin in the fall and continue into the winter months, causing fatigue and changes in moods. If you experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, don't brush it off as a simple case of the winter blues that you have to tough out on your own. This is a legitimate condition and there are steps that you can take to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year. One of the most valuable things you can do for your mental health is exercise. Exercise can reduce depression and anxiety while improving mood, focus, and overall well-being. Read on for tips on how to improve your mood with physical activity.

 

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Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

In most cases, SAD symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and disappear during spring and summer. Less commonly, the opposite pattern can cause spring or summer symptoms. In either case, symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.

Signs and symptoms of SAD may include:

  • Depression that persists for an extended period of time.
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed.
  • Fatigue.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Appetite or weight changes.
  • Agitation.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty.
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

Some of these symptoms appear more often in winter SAD or summer SAD. The seasons can also bring changes in those with bipolar disorder, such as hypomania in summer or depression in winter.

Complications

Take signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder seriously. As with other types of depression, SAD can become worse and lead to other problems if it's not treated. These can include:

Treatment can help prevent complications, especially if SAD is diagnosed and treated before symptoms get worse.

When to See a Doctor

It's normal to have some days when you feel down, but if you feel down for days at a time and you can't get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your doctor. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicideSee your doctor. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes

The specific cause of SAD remains unknown. Some factors that may come into play include:

  • Your biological clock, or circadian rhythm: The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter onset SAD. The decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels: A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical, or neurotransmitter, that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels: The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. 

Risk Factors

Seasonal Affective Disorder is diagnosed more often in women than in men, and SAD occurs more frequently in younger adults than in older adults. Factors that may increase your risk of SAD include:

  • Family history: People with SAD may be more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.
  • Having major depression or bipolar disorder: Symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally if you have one of these conditions.
  • Living far from the equator: SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer during the summer months.

 

How Exercise Improves Mental Health

Exercise improves and normalizes levels of neurotransmitters, chemical substances that carry impulses from nerve cells across the synapse to other cells. There are numerous unique neurotransmitters and they're essential for the proper functioning of our neural system. Exercise can help increase levels of these neurotransmitters, all important for mental health:

  • Dopamine: a chemical messenger crucial for many neural functions, including reward, motivation, memory, attention, and regulating movement, as well as many bodily functions. It's released when your brain expects a pleasurable activity as a reward, and is important in motivation and behavior patterns.
  • Norepinephrine: this mobilizes the brain and body, and acts as an important component of the sleep-wake cycle, alertness, the fight-or-flight response to stressful situations, and heart rate. In stressful situations it raises the blood pressure and blood sugar levels, as well as helps to break down fat, all to provide energy for the body to act.
  • Serotonin: this is a mood stabilizer that can regulate anxiety and happiness levels, and is involved in normalizing the sleep-wake cycle. It's also crucial for digestion, helping to control bowel function and even causing feelings of nausea while signalling the body to eliminate upsetting food.

Low levels of any of these chemicals are linked to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, reduced focus, and numerous other mental and emotional health issues.

You may be wondering, how does exercise increase levels of these neurotransmitters? Physical activity stimulates the release of all of these chemicals. When exercise increases your heart rate, your bloodstream delivers more oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, including to the brain.

 

Exercise also increases neurotrophic factors and neurohormones that support neuron signaling, growth, and connections; exercise directly affects and improves brain activity. Evidence has also been accruing that exercise may stimulate neurogenesis, the creation of neurons in the hippocampus, which is an area of the brain involved in memory, learning, and emotion regulation. Current research indicates that many mental health conditions are associated with reduced neurogenesis, particularly depression.

Older Man Exercising Mental Health Happy
Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

What are the practical improvements you might see with increased exercise?

  • Stress relief.
  • Improved mood.
  • Reduced tiredness and fatigue.
  • Increased mental alertness.
  • Increased energy and stamina.
  • Better endurance.
  • Increased interest in sex.
  • Weight reduction.
  • Reduced cholesterol.
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness.

Mental and physical health are not as distinct as we tend to view them. Each affects the other directly, and can support each other when maintained: increased exercise leads to improved energy, focus, mood, and motivation, which then encourages you to stay active!

 

The American Heart Association recommends you get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity (or a combination of both), preferably spread throughout the week. By sticking to this robust schedule, you'll see improvements in both physical and mental health.

 

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Mountain Ice Can Help You Get Back on Your Feet

If you're trying to get more exercise in order to relieve stress and improve your mood, Mountain Ice is here to help you move and feel better! No matter what your activity level is, we've got a Mountain Ice variety that will help relieve your aches and pains and let you enjoy being active:

  • Pain Relief Gel: The perfect blend of rich ingredients formulated to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, improve circulation, and promote better nerve and joint healing.
  • Sports Recovery Gel: Our unique formula relieves pain, reduces swelling, prevents muscle spasms, and speeds up recovery from exertion, while enhancing performance and longevity.
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