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Fighting Winter Fatigue

March 5, 2017 0 Comments

Those that know me well know that I loathe winter. Warmer temps and abundant sunshine would be my ideal daily weather forecast. I am happy to acknowledge December 21st as the return of daylight despite it being the shortest daylight of the year and that winter is just truly beginning. As luck would have it, we have not had much of a winter to speak of this year in southeast PA yet many have a hard time dealing with the winter months and not so much because of the weather. The winter doldrums, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a very real condition that affects us all and some more than others. There are scientific reasons people feel more tired during winter than they do during other seasons. The good news is you can take steps to fight the fatigue and stay energetic, even during the darkest days of winter. Furthermore, we are almost in the clear despite what the rodent in the western part of the state tells us.

Winter’s One-Two Punch

Stepping outside on a sunny day is one of life’s simple pleasures. It’s also something we don’t get the chance to do very often during winter. For one, the daylight hours are shorter (actually beginning June 21st) during winter especially if you reside in the northern hemisphere. There can be as much as a 5-6 hour difference in daylight hours between the summer and winter solstices. While everyone enjoys a nice day, sunlight is closely tied to human biology. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland inside the brain. Melatonin regulates sleep and wakefulness. When we’re in the dark, our bodies produce more melatonin. Winter is a dark time, so our bodies produce more melatonin in response. This leads to excessive feelings of fatigue and tiredness.

Sunlight is also our major source of vitamin D. Human skin creates significant amounts of vitamin D when it’s exposed to sunlight. Those who live in northern latitudes tend to have lower vitamin D levels, especially during the winter months. When the weather is cold and the days are short, there are fewer opportunities to get outside leading to deficiencies in vitamin D. Vitamin D has a huge impact on how we feel. It plays a role in bone health, cell growth, blood pressure, immune function and reduction of inflammation. It also plays an important role in performance and recovery. Low levels of vitamin D increase fatigue and make recovery take longer. If you struggle with getting your workout in regularly you now have at least two biological reason as to why.

Fighting the Good Fight

There are a number of simple steps you can take to boost your energy during the cold, dreary winter months.

  • Getting enough vitamin D is a great start. How much vitamin D do you actually need? The Institute of Medicine recommends 600 International Units per day for most adults.
  • Sunlight is obviously the best option, but getting enough vitamin D from sunlight is especially tough during winter. According to the National Institute of Health, skin exposed to sunlight through a window does not produce vitamin D. That means you have to actually go outside to collect vitamin D from sunlight. This might sound tough during winter, given that the days are short and the weather is nasty. However, your skin does receive vitamin D even on cloudy days—just not as much as it would on a day with blue skies. If you’re able to go for a walk or jog outside a few times a week, that should help. But there is still no excuse for not getting outdoors to exercise during the winter months.
  • Diet is another important factor. It often feels easier to eat fruits and vegetables during the summer months, but winter is when your body really craves their nutrients. Keep your plates colorful and include a variety of produce to help keep your energy levels high. Foods high in vitamin D include egg yolks, fatty fish and fortified products like cereals and milk.
  • Besides vitamin D, regular exercise is a surefire way to boost energy levels. This might sound counter-intuitive, but research backs it up. A study from the University of Georgia found that sedentary adults who engaged in as little as 20 minutes of low-to-moderate aerobic exercise three days a week for six weeks experienced a significant uptick in their overall energy levels. I get that you might not want to drive to the gym in a blizzard and knock out a 60-minute workout. But doing something always beats doing nothing. Winter is a perfect time to use convenient at-home workouts.
  • Light therapy lamps (or boxes) are another option. According to the Mayo Clinic, “A light therapy box mimics outdoor light. Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.”

Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.

About the Author:

Jeff Harrison is a fitness coach based in Pottstown, PA. He received a BS in Exercise and Sport Science from Penn State University and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), NSCA Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT) and ACE Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist (ACE-AHFS). Jeff's articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals as well as consumer oriented websites and magazines.

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