Dog Days of Winter: Keeping Energized and Happy During the Winter Months
Whether you live in the Snowbelt or not, the short winter days that follow the holiday excitement can be just plain depressing. For information on ways to energize us in the bleak months, I called Robert E. Thayer, PhD, who deals with related issues in his book Calm Energy (Oxford University). Dr. Thayer is professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, and has done extensive research on how people can enhance their sense of well-being -- even during winter's darkest and dullest days.
KEEP ON EXERCISING
For some people, maintaining a routine exercise program becomes too much of a chore in winter, so they avoid exercise. That, says Dr. Thayer, explains much of the lethargy and bad mood that descends this time of year. Critical to avoiding the doldrums is to have high energy and lowered tension. Exercise directly impacts both, and all it takes is five to 10 minutes per day.
You can increase your energy and keep it revved for several hours through the simplest exercise of all -- a five- to 10-minute brisk walk. Dr. Thayer's research has found this benefit to be very productive. In one study, he looked at the energy impact of walking versus eating a candy bar. Participants who reached for candy to fuel them had an immediate rise in energy -- but by the end of an hour, they had even less energy than before they ate the candy and felt significantly more tension. When tested after one hour, the walkers reported a substantial rise in energy and continued to feel more energetic for the following hour as well. According to Dr. Thayer, a 10-minute walk also gives you a cheerful outlook and clearer thinking.
An added benefit of a daily walk is the absorption of invigorating sunshine. In Daily Health News, June 17, 2003, Leo Galland, MD, director of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine, said, "Exposure of the unblocked eye to sunlight causes the pineal gland in the brain to make less melatonin. This hormone, which may cause symptoms of depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark." Even on a cloudy day, the sun's benefits will come through.
Note: People with glaucoma or cataracts should avoid direct sunlight.
MORE EXERCISE, MORE ENERGY?
For some, five to 10 minutes is not quite enough to get them past the winter blues. Dr. Thayer suggests that by performing about 45 minutes of harder exercise, such as aerobic training, you will immediately reduce tension. Although your energy level will take longer to improve -- you're likely to feel tired for about an hour after this kind of workout -- it will surge shortly after that and stay high for a number of hours more. Dr. Thayer says that this type of exercise is the best antidote to negative moods, including anxiety and frustration, or what he describes as "tense tiredness."
Winter is notorious, of course, for changing food choices -- somehow we tend to reach for rich comfort foods, such as macaroni and cheese or heavy desserts. Choosing foods that provide proper nutrition can help keep your energy up.
Nutritionist Judith Mabel, RD, PhD, says that the predictable craving for comfort food in winter makes stews, soups and root vegetables -- carrots, sweet potatoes and the like -- good choices. They are nutritious yet still fill the comfort need. However, she adds that because the body naturally slows a bit in winter, it's important to make your portions just a little smaller.
Your sense of smell can work wonders at keeping your energy up in the winter, too. Herbalist and aromatherapist Barry Grace says that any of the citrus essential oils -- orange, lemon or tangerine, for instance -- are reputed "instant mood boosters". She adds that clary sage oil is known to be a euphoric. Better: Mix a few drops of it with several drops of a citrus or lavender oil.
For some, the use of a light box helps to ensure adequate levels of full-spectrum light exposure.
Easier than a light box is bringing the feeling of spring into your home with fresh-cut flowers. Treat yourself to some of your favorites and you'll soon be having thoughts of spring.
1. Leo Galland, MD, director, Foundation for Integrated Medicine, New York.
2. Barry Grace, herbalist and aromatherapist, based in New York.
3. Judith Mabel, RD, PhD, nutritionist, registered dietician, in private practice, Boston.
4. Robert E. Thayer, PhD, professor of psychology, California State University, Long Beach, and author, Calm Energy (Oxford University).