Winter Weather Got You Down? Go Outside, Exercise To Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder, Experts Say

It's tempting to hunker down and stay indoors, but experts advise getting outside and staying active whenever possible.

Maia Pandey 8:24 AM CST on Dec 14, 2022

CHICAGO — The city has just seen its earliest sunset of the year, meaning Chicagoans are firmly entrenched in the dark, cloudy days of winter

Seasonal affective disorder, a subset of depression, typically settles in during the fall and reaches a peak during winter, when the days are shortest. Common symptoms include low energy, a lack of concentration and increased appetite and sleepiness, said Dr. Michael Ziffra, a Northwestern Medicine psychiatrist.

The shorter days and colder weather lead many people to spend extra hours on the couch under a blanket, but hunkering down can sometimes only increase the winter blues, Ziffra said.

“It’s cold outside; there’s ice on the sidewalk — it seems very appealing to sort of sit at home,” Ziffra said. “But if you get out — and it doesn’t have to be long, you can do a 20- or 30-minute walk, maybe combine it with some errands — you’ll feel better for having done so.”

Maintaining a consistent routine and diet — especially through the holidays — can be helpful, as well, Ziffra said. Many people report increased cravings for sugary foods or higher consumption of alcohol through the winter, which can contribute to sluggish or sleepy feelings, Ziffra said.

Seasonal depression can also be tough given the “emotional undertones” of the holidays, said Shona Vas, a University of Chicago professor psychiatry professor. For many people, the coldest and shortest days coincide with the potential stress of travel and family gatherings, Vas said.

Vas also said people should maintain physical and social activity as much as possible.

“Even if you do a workout at home, do something that gets your heart rate up, there have been studies [where] they compare exercise to a medication that treats depression — after three months, you can’t really tell the two groups apart,” Vas said.

Research has also shown light therapy lamps can be effective in combating symptoms, Vas said. Spas across the city offer the treatment, but residents can also buy white light lamps online and sit by it for 15-20 minutes. Even sitting by a sunlit window whenever possible can be helpful, Vas said.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago offers a free and confidential helpline 9 a.m.-8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends at 833-626-4244. 

Callers can connect with a trained professional who will provide resources and help them create a mental health plan, said Ben Frank, NAMI Chicago’s chief wellness officer.

Credit: Sarah Conway/ Block Club Chicago

The Garfield Park Conservatory’s Desert House.

A lifelong Midwesterner, Frank said he’s found getting outside and active at local gyms and parks to be key to maintaining one’s spirit through a Chicago winter. The Garfield Park Conservatory is one of his favorite wintertime spots, he said.

“It’s humid, it’s bright, you’re with a lot of plants — what better place to go take a walk?” Frank said. “That’s the one that I go to when I’m like, ‘Wow, I really need some taste of warmth and light.’”

Harold Washington Library’s Winter Garden is also a free, indoor spot with natural light and greenery.

“Starting with daylight savings time into just the dreary gray of Chicago is really disruptive on routine, and our routines are what keep us steady,” Frank said. “The way to address this is with intentionality and developing something to buoy your mood, your spirits, your energy levels.”