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Regular Exercise Protects Against Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Has your mood darkened with the shorter days and longer nights of fall and winter? If you’re like many people, getting less sunshine and being less active this time of year can contribute to feelings of sadness and apathy that may be associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD).

The good news is that regular exercise can help boost your mood
and guard against symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

Exercise and Seasonal Affective Disorder

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, 14 percent of people in the United States experience SAD (also known as seasonal depression).1 But research shows that many people can manage or avoid SAD with 30 to 60 minutes of exercise and 20 minutes of exposure to sunlight each day.2 In addition, data show exercisers have lower rates of recurrent depression compared with study participants who do not exercise.3 These figures emphasize the importance of exercising throughout the winter, especially if your goal is health and well-being as well as a trim waistline.

See your Summit Medical Group practitioner
before beginning a new or intensifying your current exercise routine.

When fewer daylight hours and cold temperatures make you feel more like curling up by a fire than working out, help motivate yourself to exercise by:

  • Eating regularly for energy
  • Eating a balanced diet that is rich in vegetables, fruit, grains, and protein
  • Drinking 6 to 8 glasses of water each day
  • Getting plenty of sleep4
  • Limiting alcohol consumption to healthy levels
    (no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men)5
  • Exercising outside in the daylight

Try the tips for maintaining your winter exercise routine this winter:

  • Arrange your schedule to start and end later or earlier so that you can exercise outside after sunrise or before sundown
    Get outside to walk, jog, run, snowshoe, or cross country ski. The exposure to sunlight can help increase your vitamin D levels and elevate your mood
  • Embrace wintry skies and brisk temperatures
    Even cloudy days offer exposure to mood-enhancing sunlight
  • Dress for your activity
    Layer clothes for warmth and comfort. Wear fast-drying fabrics such as polyester blends that wick away moisture and help keep you warm. Be sure your shoes fit, are made for the activity you’ve chosen, and have nonslip soles
  • If your workday ends after sundown, take a lunchtime walk outside each day
    If you work in an office, keep a pair of sneakers and socks under your desk and slip them on for a 10- to 20-minute walk before eating lunch, even if it means abbreviating the time you spend eating
  • Establish inclement weather alternatives
    Exercise videos and indoor exercise equipment such as flexibility bands, a stability ball, free weights, treadmill, elliptical trainer, and stationary bicycle can keep your at-home fitness routine going when you’re snowbound. You also can join an exercise class, take a vigorous walk around your local mall, or exercise at home with an online video. Exercising anywhere is key to sustaining a bright outlook
  • Engage your friends, pets, and kids for fitness activities
    Share walking, jogging, running, and exercise classes and outings with a buddy. The sociability will make exercising less of a chore and the togetherness can build relationships
  • Use trekking poles for stability if you’re walking on snowy paths
    Preventing slips and falls is key to avoiding injuries that may preclude your ability to exercise
  • Enlist the services of a personal fitness trainer
    Many people find meeting with a personal fitness trainer helps them stick with their exercise routine. Personal fitness trainers also can help vary workouts to keep them interesting and effective
  • Maintain a healthy weight
    If you’re less active during the cold months, cutting back on calories can help stabilize your weight until spring breezes tempt you to be more active again

Get Professional Help for SAD If You Need It

Although lack of sunlight and activity often are culprits of seasonal affective disorder, genetics and hormonal changes also may contribute to the condition. If exercise alone doesn’t improve your mood and your sadness persists for more than 2 weeks, talk with your doctor. He or she may recommend talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, light therapy, techniques in addition to exercise to manage stress, and/or antidepressant therapy.

Click here for more information
on Summit Medical Group Behavioral Health Services
to manage seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder, which also can affect people during warm seasons, usually begins in the late fall. Symptoms typically worsen during the winter months and include:

  • Sleeping more
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having difficulty waking
  • Feeling shame or guilt
  • Feeling sluggish and sleepy during the day
  • Having difficulty concentrating, especially in the afternoon and evening
  • Feeling antisocial and irritable
  • Feeling down or depressed
  • Having a bigger appetite or losing appetite
  • Gaining or losing weight unintentionally
  • Losing interest in normal activities, including sex
  • Thoughts of death or suicide


  1. Rosen LN, Targum SD, Terman M. Prevalence of seasonal affective disorder at four latitudes. Psych Res. 1990. 31;131-144.
  2. Rosenthal NE. Winter blues: everything you need to know to beat seasonal affective disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press; 2006.
  3. Blumenthal JA, Babyak MA, Doraiswamy PM, et al. Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosom Med. 2007;69(7):587-96.
  4. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention. CDC Features. Insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic. www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep/. Accessed November 1, 2016.
  5. Centers for disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and Public Health. Frequently asked questions. http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm. Accessed November 1, 2016.