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Feel better outside, feel better inside

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

On dark winter nights, many of us feel a dip in mood. We may feel low, eat and sleep more, and just want to hunker down for the winter.

Sometimes it’s an effort to drag ourselves out of bed for work and maybe we can’t be bothered to go out and socialise with friends.

However cold it is, and however much we really don’t fancy it, it’s good for our mental health to venture outdoors.

The NHS reckons around one in 15 of us becomes depressed in winter and suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and millions more of us report having low spirits.

Mind, the mental health charity, advises people to get outside to guard against winter blues and improve their mental health.

Go outdoors

Our internal patterns of sleep and appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity rely on natural light cycles so, as the UK sees hours of daylight diminish from seventeen in mid June to just eight in December, we can all be affected.

Outdoor exercise or ecotherapy increases exposure to sunlight and can positively impact our mood. In fact research shows outdoor exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety.

In a statement, chief executive of Mind, Paul Farmer says: "Exercise will increase physical fitness, improving self confidence. Many of us also tend to eat more in winter, especially comfort foods - which can cause weight gain, leading to reduced self esteem and loss of energy.

"Increasing exercise levels will help to maintain a healthy lifestyle and, in turn, increase mental wellbeing."

Cycle, jog or garden

Mind recommends taking part in activities with friends or an organised group, as support networks can be important when we're feeling low.

These activities could include going for a lengthy bike ride, taking a quick jog round the park or just time pottering in the garden.

Mind runs a £7.5 million grant scheme on behalf of the Big Lottery. The scheme provides 130 outdoor exercise projects across England, involving people with mental health problems to improve their confidence and self-esteem.

Projects range from horticultural and agricultural activities through to walking groups and the regeneration of local parks - encouraging people to enjoy and benefit from nature and green spaces in their local community.

Some projects are open to all; others require you to phone up for more information, and some require referrals from your GP.

Feeling SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is sometimes known as "winter depression" because the symptoms are more apparent during the winter.

The symptoms of SAD are worst during December, January, and February.

The NHS estimates that SAD affects around 7% of people in the UK mainly younger people, especially those in their twenties.

Most scientists believe that the problem is related to the way the body responds to daylight.

If you’re feeling a bit low this winter, the lack of daylight may be playing a part, so get outside as often as you can, especially on bright days. Sitting by a window can also help.

The Mental Health Foundation has looked into the mental health benefits of exercise. Chief executive, Dr Andrew McCulloch says in a statement: "There’s convincing evidence that 30 minutes' vigorous exercise, three times a week is effective against depression, and anecdotal evidence that lighter exercise will have a beneficial effect too.

"If you have a tendency towards SAD, outdoor exercise will have a double benefit, because you’ll gain some daylight."

So grab your coat and have a happier winter.

Reviewed on July 04, 2016

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