Beating the winter-time blues

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If this season of long nights and cold, wet days has you thinking hibernation is a legitimate lifestyle choice, you aren’t alone. Staying active and healthy during the late fall and winter in the Pacific Northwest is a challenge.

Luckily, there are simple things you can do to make it through the winter – without having to pull the blankets over your head and wait until spring.

The first challenge is keeping your schedule steady even when the sun doesn’t cooperate. Chances are good that in the heart of the winter you’ll be going to work in the dark and returning in the dark. That messes with everything from mood to sleep patterns.

“When the alarm goes off if it’s still dark out, you’d better believe I’m hitting snooze,” acknowledges Karyn Harkins, MD, with the MultiCare Center for Weight Loss and Wellness.

If you have trouble waking up when it’s still dark out, Dr. Harkins suggests simulating sunrise by turning on the lights along with the snooze button. Other people invest in sunrise simulating clocks, or even a timer attached to a lamp.

“For me, it’s when I turn on the lights after 5–10 minutes – now it’s morning,” she says.

Getting enough light in your life is a serious issue, Harkins says. In Northern states, especially those that experience lots of cloudy days like ours, up to 25 percent of people can experience the “winter blues,” Dr. Harkins says. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can actually affect 10 percent of people in states like Washington.

While you can’t force the clouds away or lengthen the days, light therapy has been proven to help alleviate symptoms, Dr. Harkins says. After researching the available studies on full spectrum lighting, she invested in a full spectrum light box to try it for herself.

“The effects are not instantaneous, but after a few weeks I noticed I didn’t have the huge level of fatigue in the morning or at the end of the day,” she says. “It was much better than feeling slightly revved up on caffeine all the time.”

To be most effective, the light source does need to be 10,000 lux (a measure of light intensity) and within two feet of your face. And to protect your eyes, be sure the UV waves are filtered out and don’t stare directly into the light source.

Thirty minutes to an hour a day can help with seasonal fatigue. For more severe symptoms, light therapy can be used in combination with medication.

Dr. Harkins also suggests having some activities ready to go for days when it’s tolerable to go outside.

“An hour outside walking on a cloudy day is going to be equivalent to two hours with a SAD lamp,” Dr. Harkins says.

When the kids are home on a snow day, don’t let them have all the fun.

“Snowshoe, walk, cross country ski, sled – have fun!” Dr. Harkins says.

The key to avoid winter sluggishness is not to allow yourself get there to start with.

“Don’t fall all the way into a slump,” she says. “It’s always harder to get something going than to continue a routine.”

If your normal fitness routine is impacted by winter weather, start a new routine now.

“Take a chance to either join a class that essentially forces you to go or have a friend to work out with,” Dr. Harkins says. “Have it locked into your calendar.”

It also helps if you find an activity you enjoy, whether it’s dancing, Zumba, a spin class or a scheduled swim group.

“If it’s something you don’t enjoy it will be that much harder to get going,” she says.

Flexibility is critical, particularly if you’re over the age of 40.

“You may not be able to do the same exercise activity day in and day out,” Dr. Harkins says. “There’s a certain level of muscle pain you want to be pushing through, but you definitely don’t want to be pushing through joint pain, chest pain or belly pain.”

Just as the weather can change, so can your plans. If it’s sunny and you’d rather be walking outside, don’t force yourself to resentfully spend an hour on an elliptical machine just because that’s what you’d planned. Flex your choices and get outside on that beautiful day for the benefit of both the light exposure and the exercise.

And how often do you need to exercise?

“Try for every single day, 45 minutes,” Dr. Harkins says. “Because life is going to get in the way at least twice a week.”

And remember: Chores, whether vigorous house cleaning or raking leaves, count.

“Just because you happen to accomplish a chore that needed to be done, doesn’t mean it’s any less valid,” she says.

If you find you can’t push past the winter “blahs” and they start impairing your ability to function at work, at home or socially, it’s time to talk to your medical

“Research has shown clinical improvement with seasonal antidepressants,” Dr. Harkins says.

If your mood or the mood of a loved one is reaching crisis level, it is time to call a crisis line to access emergency help.

  • Pierce County Health Crisis Line: 1 (800) 576-7764
  • Crisis Clinic of King County: 1 (866) 427-4747
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line: 741741 (How it works as www.crisistextline.org).

Finally, Dr. Harkins says, it’s always helpful to remember you aren’t alone.

“Keep yourself healthy, help your family stay healthy and let’s get through this next season together,” she says.

MultiCare Health System is a not-for-profit health care organization with more than 18,000 employees, providers and volunteers. We’ve been caring for our community for well over a century, since the founding of Tacoma’s first hospital.

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