SAD plus COVID: A bit of light and a bit of exercise can make all the difference

The best way to prepare for the winter blues is to anticipate, prepare and plan to add light and exercise, say experts.

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As the season of darkness and rain descends, the spectre of lowered mood, heightened anxiety and seasonal depression looms. The global pandemic has added an additional stressor to those vulnerable to mood disorders.

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“Stress plays a role,” said Dr. Raymond Lam, an expert in seasonal affective disorder. “People who have clinical depression can have their depression start earlier, have symptoms worsen, and people with mild or winter symptoms can have major symptoms such as sadness, lowered mood, oversleeping, overeating.”

According to a recent Ipsos Reid poll , nearly three in 10 Canadians have reported a deterioration in mental health since the beginning of the pandemic, and according to Stats Canada , more Canadian adults screened positive for anxiety or major depressive disorder in 2021 than in 2020.

Lam, professor and B.C. leadership chair in depression research at UBC, said the best way to prepare for the season is to anticipate it, and understand our defences may be down due to the pressures of the pandemic.

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“Not having the usual things that help with our resilience, such as exercise, gatherings, and friendships, means our coping behaviours are reduced,” said Lam.

Raymond W. Lam, professor and B.C. Leadership Chair in depression research, UBC, in his office.
Raymond W. Lam, professor and B.C. Leadership Chair in depression research, UBC, in his office. Photo by Handout /PNG

For those who have seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a mood disorder that strikes during the autumn and winter seasons, light therapy , or exposure to 30 minutes of bright, artificial light a day, is a well-known, safe and effective treatment. However, Lam said research shows that even when skies are grey, exposure to natural light is beneficial.

Lam also suggests we get moving. “Exercise by itself helps depression, even clinical depression, and specifically for winter depression it is helpful.”

So what happens when restrictions, fear of COVID-19 infections or a dislike of being outdoors in bad weather keeps us from staying active?

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New research by Dr. Eli Puterman has found that at-home exercise through fitness apps is an effective tool in managing depression.

At the beginning of pandemic restrictions in 2020, Puterman, an associate professor in the school of kinesiology at UBC, said that he heard countless stories from people he met who were suffering from isolation, loneliness and depression.

Puterman, a health psychologist, had maintained his workouts during lockdown using Down Dog, an app that provides a variety of exercise programs. He researched whether at-home exercise apps could provide some relief.

The results of his study, published last week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine , showed that at-home app-based workouts, especially those using a combination of high intensity interval training and yoga, provided significant reductions in depressive symptoms.

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The study randomized a group of 334 women and men between 18-64 years old who were not involved in high levels of exercise, and assigned them to either yoga, HIIT, or both, and a control group was asked to maintain their current level of exercise.

Participants using the app all exhibited a steady decrease in their depression symptoms regardless of the type of exercise they did, and those with the most significant depression symptoms had the most dramatic improvements.

“The people in the study group categorized as having some kind of significant depression saw a drastic change,” said Puterman. “A good 70 per cent of them could no longer be categorized as having significant depression by the end of the study.”

Twenty minutes of vigorous exercise, four times a week, was enough to make a difference, said Puterman with those who used a combination of yoga and HIIT training receiving the greatest benefit.

Puterman said he hopes that public policy will shift to providing tools, tax incentives and education programs to help people incorporate more exercise into their routines.

At the individual level, Puterman reminds people to start slowly.

“Even a walk around the block can help,” he said.

Puterman also suggests using covered spaces in parks and school grounds to exercise outdoors, to get the added benefit of natural light exposure and fresh air.

dryan@postmedia.com

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