Battling the Blues — Part 1: Take a walk
Editor’s note: This is part one in a series of four articles exploring the causes of — and ways to combat — winter blues. The focus of the series is on mental health and strategies for improving your state of mind through physical activity, spirituality, diet and community and connections.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When green turns to gray, the sun drops behind the hill by 4 p.m., and the next six months requires a jacket to leave the house, it’s normal to feel a little low, lethargic and, perhaps, wistful for warm, summer days.
For those who tend to find themselves feeling down more frequently during the winter months, precise explanations may not be explicit. With holidays can come additional stressors, hibernation can turn into withdrawal, and less light can lead to less activity and less serotonin for the brain.
But regardless of why winter spirits may need a lift — awareness goes a long way, as does taking initiative.
Take a walk
On the whole, Yampa Valley residents enjoy a more active than average lifestyle. And that extends to — or for snow enthusiasts, even peaks — in the winter months.
But for some, cold temperatures and limited daylight can make it harder to get out and about, especially on a regular basis.
That’s why walking is an easy, accessible and free way to combat winter blues. Pretty much anyone can do it, anywhere. And even a five-minute walk can provide both physical and mental health benefits.
In general, exercise is known to have significant mental health benefits.
Studies show it can increase energy, improve mood, decrease stress and lead to better sleep.
And “it’s not just about the occasional one-off feel good factor,” according to the UK-based organization Walking for Health. Even mild to moderate physical activity “improves self-perception and self-esteem, mood and sleep quality, and it reduces stress, anxiety and fatigue. … In older people, staying active can improve cognitive function, memory, attention and processing speed and reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.”
There is also new research showing how staying active can both prevent and help people recover from depression.
The mind and body are not separate, emphasized Lisa Bankard, employee wellbeing program manager for UCHealth.
Mind and body
It’s a connection that has been explored for centuries.
As Socrates said, “Surely a person of sense would submit to anything, like exercise, so as to obtain a well functioning mind and a pleasant, happy life.”
In a Harvard Medical School study published in January 2019, author Karmel Choi, a clinical and research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “saw a 26% decrease in odds for becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity.
“This increase in physical activity is what you might see on your activity tracker if you replaced 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running or one hour of sitting with one hour of moderate activity like brisk walking.”
It isn’t new to make a connection between mood and exercise, Choi wrote. But his study aimed to provide evidence beyond the notion that moving makes us feel better, or that when we feel better, we move more. And conversely, we move less when we feel down.
Using a genetic database that includes hundreds of thousands of people, Choi found people who moved more had a “significantly lower risk for major depressive disorder — but only when the exercise was measured objectively using a tracking device,” as self-reported data was not always accurate.
And the tracking device didn’t just measure “formal exercise.” It measured everything: climbing the stairs, vacuuming or going to the store.
“What our study would say is that any kind of movement can add up to keep depression at bay,” Choi said. “I think that’s why our study findings were especially appealing. It didn’t say you have to run a marathon, do hours of aerobics or be a CrossFit master just to see benefits on depression.”
Of course, that’s not to suggest people who take on more intense workouts shouldn’t keep at it, but it does provide encouragement for those who find it works better to add more gentle movements into their day.
“Ideally, to prevent depression you should do at least 15 minutes a day of higher-intensity exercise, such as running, or at least an hour of lower-intensity exercise, such as walking or housework,” Choi said.
Regular moderate movement can be just as important as intense workouts, Bankard said. And it doesn’t have to be done all at once.
With a recent focus on detrimental effects of sitting too long, getting up and moving for about five minutes every hour is healthy for both body and mind, she said.
Movement shouldn’t be something “you have to overthink,” Bankard said. It should be convenient and something that can be easily incorporated into your daily routine.
Daily movement has also been found to be one of the keys to a long life. The communities across the globe who live the longest aren’t going to spinning classes or lifting weights as much as they are simply getting up and moving every day as part of their work and lifestyle — often in the form of walking.
There is also the mindfulness benefit of taking a walk, Bankard said.
Even if it’s a 10-minute stroll around the block during the workday, don’t take your phone, she advises. “Pay attention. Is there wind? Are there birds? How is your breathing? Try to really disconnect and take that mental break.”
There’s also the social element. Invite a co-worker or neighbor on a walk. Winter blues can make hermits out of us, especially those working from home, and even a short walk accompanied by a conversation with another human can lift the spirits. Company can also prove a strong factor for motivation and accountably.
Movement can take place anywhere, Bankard explained.
If you aren’t up for going outside, put on some music and dance. Climb up and down the stairs or do pushups during a commercial, Bankard suggests. Put on a yoga tape or play a fitness video game. Do some lunges while waiting for water to boil.
Of course, sunlight and nature do come with some added benefit (if it isn’t a blizzard or below zero).
Exposure to sunlight has been found to increase the brain’s release of serotonin. And with less light, serotonin levels can decrease. About 5% of Americans suffer from “seasonal affective disorder” or “major depression with seasonal pattern.”
The cause of the disorder isn’t entirely clear. It may be a result of genetics, changes in melatonin production or disturbances in natural circadian rhythms due to seasonal shifts in light, among other factors, according to Dr. Michelle Jimerson, a family physician in Steamboat Springs and member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “There’s so much we don’t know about why people are depressed,” Jimerson said. “There may be a familial, genetic component, a social component, a chemical component.”
There are treatments for seasonal affective disorder, including artificial light therapy, medication, and cognitive behavior therapy.
But for the general populace who get an undeniable boost from a beautiful sunny day, the benefits of nature go far beyond light.
“Walking has been proven effective in reducing anxiety and depression, and there is further evidence that walking in nature improves those results even further,” according to UNC Healthcare. “That’s because different parts of our brain activate in nature. Our mind calms, leading to physical changes including a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure.”
Which goes back to that interconnectedness. When our brain feels better, our body feels better. When our body is healthier, so is our brain.
Again from Socrates, who was avid about physical fitness:
“Why even in the process of thinking and not using our body, it is a matter of common knowledge that grave mistakes may often be traced to bad health. And because the body is in a bad condition loss of memory, depression and discontent often attack the mind so violently as to drive out whatever knowledge it contains.”
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