How to Fight Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

How to Fight Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Unfortunately, for many of us, when the weather gets colder and the nights get longer, our mood goes down and our weight goes up. Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms start appearing as daylight hours wither and we miss those few hours available to us due to increased time indoors. The good news is that you can play an active role in relieving your symptoms and benefit from increased weight loss through outdoor exercise in cold weather. Now’s your chance to kick off your winter training and set a seasonal best. 


Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can affect anyone and occurs in 6-14% of the population depending on where you live.(1) Besides making you feel terrible, SAD can contribute to winter weight gain through increased comfort eating and time alone.(2)

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder that occurs at the same time each year, usually in winter. Symptoms include depression, fatigue, hopelessness, and withdrawal. A lesser form of seasonal mood change is known as the winter blues.

Outdoor exercise may be the best solution to this serious problem. Light therapy is a traditional treatment for SAD. This involves exposure to a SAD lamp designed to mimic natural sunlight. Most people respond to light therapy within a few days. The recommended usage of a SAD lamp is 30-90 minutes a day at a strength of 10,000 lux.(3)

woman running in winter

In addition to light therapy, scientific evidence suggests that outdoor exercise can also alleviate seasonal affective disorder symptoms with the chemical release of serotonin (one of the happy hormones)(4), and through natural exposure to sunlight!(5, 6)

Exercise is a proven strategy to cope with anxiety, stress, and depression.(7) Move that exercise outdoors during your lunch break and you will also benefit from the natural daylight and fresh air.

Snack Tip:

Are you aware of how much your diet influences your mood? Adjust your diet to include natural mood boosters and make your winter that much brighter.

Interestingly, Japanese and Icelandic populations have a surprisingly low rate of SAD despite their northern location and short winter days.(8, 9) It is thought that the fish-rich diet of both countries (60 and 90kg per year compared to 24kg in Canada), boosts essential vitamin D stores and combats the symptoms of SAD.


Winter weight gain is a thing, but don’t worry – it’s not the 2kg pile-on that we read about in magazines. Actually, the average weight gain over the winter season is a mere 0.48kg.(10) The problem is, these extra pounds stick around. They don’t disappear during the summer months and, over time, can lead to obesity.

The cause of winter weight gain is debated, but the evidence points at two key factors; lifestyle and biology. It’s no surprise that in the winter months we prefer to cuddle up inside and put away our running shoes. Add to that the heavy meals, chocolate and alcohol we consume during the holidays, and you have a recipe for weight gain.

close up of runner's lower body


The biological origins of our cold season kilos are much deeper: We humans possess an innate drive to gain weight as a way of surviving food scarcity.(11) Historically this was worse in the winter months. The risk of overeating wasn’t a concern back then. Now we have to choose between triple chocolate cheesecake and profiteroles. Scientists at the University of Exeter suggest that New Year’s Day may be the worst day to start a new diet.(12) So, until our biology evolves, we need a solution. Outdoor exercise is the perfect antidote.


Exercise is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to prevent unwanted weight gain. However, for significant weight loss current recommendations for physical activity are in excess of four hours per week!(13) Outdoor exercise in winter is the secret to maximizing calorie burn in the colder months. Here’s why:


Most of our body fat is stored as inactive White Adipose Tissue (WAT), which offers insulation but cannot generate heat. In severe cold, the shivering response can increase our energy expenditure (i.e. calories burned) five times above the resting level.(14) However, shivering is highly uncomfortable and is not recommended as a strategy to increase calorie burn.

What is brown adipose tissue (BAT)?

Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) is a metabolically active fatty tissue involved in producing and distributing heat throughout the body. BAT helps hibernating mammals stay warm in winter and was recently discovered in humans.

Brown adipose tissue, on the other hand, has a special property. This vital tissue is activated in cold temperatures generating the heat we need to function normally. Heat generation in cold temperatures, aside from shivering, can account for 11.8% of resting energy expenditure.(15) A recent study in Frontiers in Physiology showed that BAT adapts to outdoor temperatures, generating more heat and burning more calories, as the weather gets colder.(16)

We now spend 90% of our time indoors, where ambient temperature is often controlled. The rise of obesity is thought to be related to our constant warm surroundings.(17)

Exercise in the cold will activate your brown adipose tissue (BAT) and improve your body’s ability to thermoregulate while burning extra calories.

BAT activation through cold exposure also increases insulin sensitivity, regulating blood sugar and lowering the risk of weight gain.(18, 19, 20)

So there you have it. Outdoor exercise and winter training burns more calories and improves your mood. Now you have the cold, hard facts, it’s time to get outside this winter. Relieve Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms with outdoor exercise!

If you need a bit more motivation, try getting pumped with the adidas Workout Playlist. Pop on your headphones and get moving!


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