I was reminded this past week about the importance of staying active during the winter, as well as some of the challenges people face during this COVID-19 winter
Why is this Hard?
Our brains are somewhat poorly adapted to modern life. Our distant ancestors would go into hibernation mode during the winter. Food was not as plentiful, and going outdoors was hazardous, so sleeping more meant a greater chance of survival. This was also not a time to be taking on new projects or challenges. Our brains were naturally more focused inward and inclined to be more wary of the future. A bit like we are in a mild depression.
In today’s world many of us are expected to perform at the same level no matter what the season. Indeed, the holiday season may be a time of greater challenge, with preparing for the holidays added on top of keeping up at work.
In addition, we usually don’t lack food in the winter. Quite the contrary, this is the time when companies pull out the stops to get us to eat more sweets.
Hence, the need to modify our natural inclination to hibernate. If we don’t, we will find ourselves not just stressed but distressed by the holidays. Unable to meet expectations, sad and depleted.
Sleep and Light Play a Role
We have talked a lot about modifying sleep and light exposure so that we have more energy and optimism in the winter. Here we want to focus on exercise.
First the good news, you don’t need to do as much as you might think in order to get the mood benefit from physical activity. In fact, 30 minutes of activity that raises your heart rate, six days a week will get you the maximum mood benefit. And it doesn’t seem to matter that much what you do. You can get to the goal by climbing a few flights of stairs several times during the day, or by going on a brisk walk at lunch, or in the morning.
Exercise has many benefits.
- Brain performance. Aerobic activity is associated with better memory function, better problem solving, healthier brain cells, and more serotonin and dopamine (key neurotransmitters connected with depression).
- Sleep quality. Aerobic activity is associated with better sleep quality, more deep or restful sleep.
- Immune system. Aerobic activity improves immune system function across a number of dimensions.
- Anti-aging. Aerobic exercise, especially High Intensity Training, improves measures of physiologic age.
Your Activity Plan
How to get started?
- Do something every day. Your plan needs to allow you to do something every day (or at least six days a week). How about adding a walk around the block? Or sitting on that exercise bicycle for a few minutes a day while watching your favorite TV show. Or doing some easy home exercises while you watch a training video.
- Start small. You are much better starting with a ridiculously small commitment but doing it every day than trying for something ambitious. How about ten minutes a day of activity?
- Keep track. Spend some time thinking about how you can keep track of how you are doing. We think a smart watch or an inexpensive pedometer are worthwhile investments.
- Get support. Find a friend who can walk with you (virtually of course).
- Celebrate success. Be sure to celebrate your success at the end of the week. Remember, doing something every day is much more important than doing a lot on a couple of days. So even if the something you did was just running up and down the stairs a couple of times, celebrate this as a big step forward.