If winter, in particular the holiday season, gets you down or causes you to feel depressed, take heart. A clinical study showed that exercise may be effective at beating the blues.

The 10-month study conducted at Duke University Medical centre, Durham, North Carolina assessed 156 adult patients who suffer from major depressive disorder (MDD). Participants were randomly assigned to either an antidepressant medication, aerobic exercise, or a combination of both. Assessments were carried out at the beginning of the study, at 4 months, and at 6 months after the study ended. Researchers found that exercise was effective at decreasing symptoms of depression.

These findings are consistent with those of earlier studies. "When compared to the widely accepted forms of treatments, such as antidepressants or therapy, physical activity has been shown to work as well," said Dr. Jack Raglin of Indiana University, an authority on exercise and depression.

Exactly how exercise works remains a mystery. "We do know that the benefits or effects of exercise are not dependent upon endorphin release, because we find mood improvements and psychological benefits occurring in exercise doses that are too mild to result in much endorphin production," Dr. Raglin explained in an interview.

In other words, you don't have to sweat or burn to get a result. "Small amounts of exercise are physically beneficial. We know that 30 minutes of brisk walking a day has very profound effects on health factors. You don't need to work at 60% to 70% of your maximum heart rate to see benefits. This is important, because it increases the likelihood that people will stay on their programs," Dr. Raglin commented.

Dr. Raglin recommends planning ahead just as if you were going on a diet or about to quit smoking. "Map out your week so you can see where there are 15 to 30 minute open periods; what, if any, conflicts occur; and what your backup plan will be."

"The key is not to focus on the distance or outcome of the exercise, but instead focus on where you are and what you're doing," Dr. Michael Sachs of Temple University explained in an interview.

Both Dr. Raglin and Dr. Sachs advise never worrying about having an immediate goal, especially a weight loss goal, as it's unrealistic. They also recommend exercising with a friend or an exercise partner. "The social aspect is important - it can help to uplift you, and break feelings of isolation," Dr. Sachs said.

Rhythmic aerobic exercise has been shown to produce a calming, tranquilizing effect. "One of the benefits of exercising on a regular basis is consciousness alteration, what we call the runner's high," Sachs explained. The physiological changes and the possibility of experiencing that "runner's high" play a part in mood alteration. "If you can get out on a track or trail, and get into a rhythm - lose yourself in the activity - without having to focus on your external surroundings, you may experience a distraction that can be helpful in and of itself," he said. Being outside in nature - in the daylight - also helps, particularly with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

If the weather prevents outdoor activity, walking inside a mall, or using indoor facilities such as a swimming pool or a treadmill can produce similar results. Exercising at home by a window also works. "Most importantly, choose an exercise or activity you like," Dr. Sachs advised.

Before you start:

  • Check with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.
  • If you suffer from asthma, be aware that cold weather can trigger an attack.
  • If you plan to exercise outside, be aware of slippery surfaces, and dress appropriately.
  • If your mood gets worse, seek professional help.


Claire Sowerbutt, medical writer 
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team