Sarah Moseley |

Beat the winter blues

GB Rowing Team Sport Scientist Sarah Moseley shares three ways to banish the seasonal gloom

If you’re feeling a little gloomier than usual during the dark and cold winter months, you’re not alone. From the months of November through to March, it is not uncommon for people to experience heightened feelings of low mood, fatigue, and a disruption to their sleep schedule. For many, this seasonal mood change is transient and easily managed with some simple lifestyle changes. However, some people are impacted worse than others, and can suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is characterised by depressive symptoms associated with a specific time of year. So, why do we feel gloomier in the winter months, and, more importantly, what can we do about it?

1 – Seek out the sun

Reduced exposure to the sun is a big contributing factor to the winter blues. During the winter months, we not only have fewer hours of daylight, but any sunlight we get is also weaker. When sunlight enters your eyes, it signals your brain to produce serotonin, the body’s natural ‘feel-good’ hormone. Serotonin plays an important role in regulating mood, and sleep, amongst several other functions. Over time, too little sunlight exposure can result in a reduction in serotonin, which can cause negative disruptions to mood and sleep quality.

If you’re struggling to get natural light into your daily schedule, you may need to make some adjustments to your everyday routine:

  • Try to seek as much natural sunlight as possible in the morning and afternoon – simply taking a walk during your lunch hour or sitting near a sunny window will help.
  • Make your home / work environment light and airy by opening the curtains and letting as much natural light in as possible.

2 – Keep active

Many of you will have set goals to support your physical wellbeing and fitness this year. However, exercise also plays an important role in mental wellbeing by reducing feelings of stress and anxiety and by helping to lift your mood. Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, one of many hormones released when you exercise. Endorphins play an important role in improving your mood – for example, endorphins interact with opiate (pain) receptors in the body and act as natural painkillers – which results in feelings of positive wellbeing. You will also feel a mood boost during and after exercise, thanks to the release of that ‘feel-good’ hormone, serotonin.

When winter strikes, even the most motivated fitness fanatics start pressing the snooze button more often. However, there are lots of things you can do to help you stay motivated when the temperatures plunge.

  • Wrap up in the right gear – It might sound obvious, but this will make a big difference on those cold wintery days. Invest in some gloves, a headband to cover your ears, and a buff to keep your neck warm.
  • Make it enjoyable – Exercise shouldn’t be something we ‘have to do’, but something that we enjoy doing because it makes us feel good. This doesn’t mean running miles and miles each day – it can simply involve going for a walk or doing some yoga in the garden.
  • Find a workout partner – Having someone to train with keeps you accountable to one another, and helps you stay connected when you may feel like hibernating from the rest of the world.
  • Set a goal – Why not make a new year goal to improve your mental and physical wellbeing? There are many community initiatives, such as RED January, that encourage people to be active every day to help beat the January blues – or why not join the ROW31 crew?

3 – Keep a good sleep routine

Bright light plays a key role in regulating our sleep-wake cycle. While sunlight might help you wake up in the morning, it also affects how well you sleep at night. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain to regulate the sleep cycle. Melatonin levels rise in the evening as it gets dark, helping to promote feelings of sleepiness. Levels then subside in the morning, as it gets light, promoting wakefulness.

The change in daylight hours can affect our sleep-wake cycle. For example, melatonin production shows a seasonal variation, with the hormone being produced for a longer period in the winter than in the summer. This might entice you to want to stay in bed for longer or nap late in the afternoon, which can have a negative impact on your sleep routine.

While winter is the season for hibernation, maintain a healthy sleep routine by:

  • Seeking bright light in the morning and afternoon – if you find you have trouble sleeping during the winter months, exposure to bright light in the morning and afternoon can help to sync your body’s clock.
  • Help yourself to wake up in the dark mornings using a dawn simulating alarm clock – these sort of alarm clocks simulate dawn with a gradually brightening light, making those winter morning wakeups a little more relaxing.
  • Resist the urge to sleep in late or nap – Keep bedtime and waking times consistent. While it might be tempting to stay in bed for a few extra hours when it’s dark and cold outside, this is likely to disturb your natural sleep-wake cycle.

Find out more about winter sleep strategies here.