How to Beat the Winter Blues This Blue Monday

With COVID-19 restrictions, Blue Monday feels particularly blue this year. But the good news is, it doesn’t take much to glean the mood-enhancing benefits of exercise. Photo: Blasius Erlinger/Getty Images

Jan. 18 is Blue Monday — considered the most depressing day of the year — but many would agree that 2020 was a Blue Year. And 2021 isn’t off to a great start, either. While Blue Monday is a response to the dark days of winter combined with post-holiday blahs (and bills), the winter blues can be a very real mental health strain.

And with COVID-19 restrictions, Blue Monday feels particularly blue this year. Indeed, 84 per cent of Canadians have felt a decline in their mental health since the start of COVID-19, according to a report from the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Physical activity has been shown to release endorphins, serotonin and dopamine that can ultimately improve one’s mood. But according to data collected by ParticipACTION, Canadians are more likely to use sedentary activities — such as binge-watching Netflix — as a coping mechanism for anxiety and stress during the pandemic.

To top it off, “The things we might do to relieve some of that anxiety and stress are so reduced right now,” says Margaret Eaton, national CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Gyms and yoga studios are temporarily closed, as are social gathering spaces. “The winter blues are going to affect us differently this year.”

Winter blues involve sadness or unhappiness attributed to the dark, cold weather. About 15 per cent of Canadians experience winter blues — on an average year. This year, that percentage is expected to be higher, says Eaton, since mental health is already at a low point. About two to three per cent of Canadians also experience SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.

“Exercise has for years been identified as an astounding treatment for anxiety and for mild, moderate and severe depression,” says Eaton. “It has quite extraordinary effects.”

Increasing your heart rate and filling your lungs with fresh air have been shown to provide relief from the symptoms of anxiety and depression — both immediately and over the long term. “Over time you’ll experience an elevated mood as a more consistent feature of your life if you’re exercising regularly,” says Eaton.

The good news is, it doesn’t take much to glean the mood-enhancing benefits of exercise: within five minutes after moderate exercise you’re likely to experience a mood-enhancement effect, according to ParticipACTION.

“When we think about the mental health connection, this is an area where we see benefits after a single bout of physical activity,” says Leigh Vanderloo, an exercise scientist with ParticipACTION. “If you go out for 15-minute walk, when you come in there is going to be a noticeable difference.”

That’s why CMHA has teamed up with ParticipACTION on Blue Monday to raise awareness of the link between mental health and physical activity through Move for Your Mood!

“Physical activity plays a really important role in our mood,” says Vanderloo. “It helps with the release of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, which boost feelings of happiness and wellness. It also decreases the amount of cortisol, which is our body’s stress hormone.”

ParticipACTION recommends 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week (which translates into 20 minutes a day), as well as muscle strengthening activities at least twice a week.

So if exercise is so good for us, why is it so hard to stick with it?

“This time of year is always a little bit trickier because we have less daylight and spend more time indoors. Compound that with the pandemic and it’s a perfect storm where we just don’t have to move,” says Vanderloo.

While there are limitations during the pandemic — some parks, trails and recreational facilities are closed — she recommends taking physical activity outdoors as much as possible to get some Vitamin D and fresh air, all of which can help to combat the winter blues.

Adding a social component can help you stay motivated, says Eaton. That’s harder to do in lockdown — but not impossible. Talk to a friend or family member on the phone or video chat while you’re out for a walk, for example. Or take a virtual livestreamed class (maybe with a friend joining in from their household) to “add some social to your experience.” Not only can this keep you accountable, but social connections are critical for enhancing mood.

“Try to do it every day, take it outdoors when you can and keep it fun,” says Vanderloo. ‘Fun’ is key; if you look forward to it, you’re more likely to stick with it.

You can find a library of free at-home exercise videos on ParticipACTION.com (no equipment required) as well as a Get Started program.

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