Michael Mantell by Michael Mantell

Winter BluesWhen “the falling leaves drift by the window, the autumn leaves of red and gold,” you know it’s time to start incorporating your fall-winter fitness plan.

As Charles Dickens put it, “Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own; and from morning to night, as from the cradle to the grave, it is but a succession of changes so gentle and easy that we can scarcely mark their progress.”

For many people, however, seasonal changes are not so “gentle and easy.” They impact our mood, health, sleep and general behavior in some very stormy ways. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) often thought of as an “energy crisis,” may affect up to 6 percent of the U.S. population, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, while 10 percent to 20 percent of the population may experience a milder form called the “winter blues.”

From the flu, cravings for sweets and starchy foods, weight gain, heavy feelings in the arms or legs, depression and a conspicuous drop in energy to fatigue, oversleep, concentration difficulties, hopelessness and constant agitation and anxiety, SAD typically begins as the days become shorter and peaks in mid-winter. Couple that with an increase in carbohydrate loading common during the holidays, and it makes for an unhappy season. There’s a clear link between the quantity of sunlight available to us during this time of the year and our biological performance.

You may think of SAD as a form of jet lag, a circadian rhythm disturbance, that psychiatrist Dr. Alfred J. Lewy wrote about decades ago. His research found that shorter days in the fall and winter along with a delayed dawn causes us to drift out of a normal sleep-wake cycle, as if we traveled across many time zones. Other research suggests that decreasing levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin due to a lack of sunlight in the United States during fall and winter, changes in circadian rhythm and a genetic predisposition, are all culprits of this disorder.

While exercise is a key ingredient in reducing symptoms of SAD, it’s difficult for some to find the energy and the time for “…walkin’ in a winter wonderland.” You don’t have to live with those symptoms though. For actual SAD, light therapy, or “phototherapy,” may help. This involves sitting in front of a light box of 10,000 lux from a fluorescent bulb for a minimum of 45 minutes every morning, and for some, hours each day. Talking it out to learn to think more accurately and positively, antidepressant medication to regulate serotonin, spending more time outdoors in the sunlight, and even moderate amounts of complex carbohydrates can all help.

Sticking to our fitness routines during this time of the year can be a major challenge – whether it’s due to SAD, the flu, frigid outside temperatures, the common cold, sleep difficulties, gift shopping, too much partying, drinking and junk food, or just a general lack of time. It may well be the most difficult time of year to stay on top of fitness and health, but it’s also the time we need it most.

How can you keep your fitness at its peak when you need it most during these shorter days and longer nights? How can you create the right habits in November to make New Year’s a time to celebrate not only a new year, but ending the year with a real sense of accomplishment in fitness and health?

1. The link is in what you think. Think about what can go right, the advantages of using this time of year to reach your fitness goals? Increase your self-efficacy, your confidence in your ability to stick with exercise during this challenging period by avoiding negative, erroneous thoughts about yourself. You CAN do it. Call on your past successes, get in a class or watch a video of others who are successfully working out, be sure you are open to the encouragement you get from others and give to yourself, and have plans in place to avoid the lapses that sometimes come at this time of the year.

2. Time to try something new? Doesn’t the crisp cool air surrounding a heated pool sound good to you? It’s time to hit the slopes and do some skiing and snowboarding. Cycling or hiking can be invigorating on a cool day amid the falling leaves, mountain paths and even alongside an empty beach. With suitable layered clothing, a hat, adequate fluid levels and using caution where you exercise, fall and winter outdoor activities can be revitalizing.

3. Think “activity and movement” more than “exercise.” How can you increase the intensity of daily activity in your routine? Don’t just watch your kids practice their sport, walk across that bridge to work, resist the shortcut, walk to dinner and take two steps at a time.

4. Move it indoors. Colder weather is never an excuse to avoid exercise and healthy activity. Portable, versatile exercise equipment is easily available, as are challenging DVD programs and in-home or office routines that feature exercises such as pushups, chair dips, squats and lunges. You can also turn some of your household chores (sweeping, scrubbing, vacuuming and raking) into workouts.

Don’t wait until the New Year to jumpstart your fitness. Get started today with our 12-Week Kick Start Workout!