Pushing Through the Dark Ages and Getting Ready for Spring

How to manage the winter doldrums
Sgt. Matt Young works out at Area X during mobilization training at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, April 19, 2012. (Sgt. Brendan Mackie/Hawaii Army National Guard)

The time between Jan. 1 and the start of spring can feel like the Dark Ages. Of course, the more southern your location, the less it's likely that seasonal changes will affect you, but those feelings still can occur as the days are short and outdoor activities are reduced.

If you are starting to feel the strains of the season and your New Year's resolutions have faded, realize that your situation is a common one. The official term used to describe the more serious symptoms of the "Dark Ages" or "winter blues" is seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

According to the Mayo Clinic, there's a long list of symptoms:

  • Weight gain due to increased snacking and decreased physical activity
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Having problems with oversleeping
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling anxious
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day

Many of us have mild symptoms of general sluggishness and weight gain. However, if you are having more than just a few of these symptoms and are feeling depressed with thoughts of death or suicide, get help now.

If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. If you're a veteran, please select 1 once your call is connected.

You also can make a doctor's appointment for your annual physical. Make sure to discuss your symptoms of depression even if you tend to dismiss the possibility that these are serious issues. It's important not to ignore these problems, especially as we must deal with fewer social opportunities, quarantines and general isolation due to COVID-19.

Some Ways To Help With Getting Through the 'Dark Ages'

Almost all of us merely do less in the winter months than we do during the rest of the year. Even at the Naval Academy, the time between New Year's Day and spring break is known as the Dark Ages.

Here is my list to help you push through the Dark Ages:

1. Get sunlight

Our bodies need sunlight as a trigger for our circadian rhythms. Our internal clocks can use even just a few minutes of sunlight even if you have to bundle up to go outside. Go for a short walk or stand in your backyard. Mix in some activities, such as yard work or stretching, to pass the time. You may find that exposing yourself to sunlight at the same time each day will set your internal clock and give you a better night's sleep.

2. Breathe

When you're outside, focus on breathing fresh air. Take deep and relaxing breaths as you soak up some sunlight. Try box breathing (four-second inhale, four-second hold, four-second exhale, four-second hold) while you walk, sit, do yard work or play with a family pet.

3. Vitamin D

Exposure to the sun causes the body to manufacture vitamin D, and that's the main reason getting outside and soaking up the sun and breathing to relax are so important. If you cannot go outside due to harsh weather or a lack of sun, do not forget to take a vitamin D supplement. Researchers link seasonal depression issues with a vitamin D deficiency.

4. Try to stay on schedule

Following the same training schedule that you have during the summer in the winter will help you fight off the Dark Ages. You may have to change the routine, but try not to change the time of day that you train.

Keeping that steady habit will help prevent you from building bad habits in place of your training time. You may not be able to get outside to run, bike or do calisthenics, but you can do some indoor exercise with calisthenics, weights, a jump rope or cardio machines if they're available.

5. Food choices

If you are staying inside more than normal, having good food choices is important, especially if you are a "grazer." This type of mindless eating between meals is one of the culprits that causes winter weight gain. If you choose more fruits and foods high in fiber and good protein as snacks instead of sugar snacks, that will help fight the weight gain, but the ultimate goal should be not to have the mindless-eating snacks in the house at all.

Instead, drink water. We are typically more dehydrated than we think, and curbing your thirst could eliminate the idea of having to eat a snack. Then eat normal-sized portions when it is meal time.

6. Caffeine is not the answer

Although a morning caffeine boost is fine, caffeine intake later in the day and early evening will affect your ability to sleep well at night, thus further complicating your energy levels, sleep cycles and internal clock.

7. Alcohol does not help

Even though you may pass out, alcohol disturbs sleep function. I know I am being a bummer with these suggestions, but overdoing the daily drugs we consume to speed up or calm down has an impact.

Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol are coping and self-medicating drugs. We have to limit their intake, just as we limit the portions and types of food we eat each day. Timing is everything.

Drinking alcohol to fall asleep at the end of the day does not produce a good night's rest that will help with overall recovery from stress. Alcohol disturbs the REM stage of sleep we need to recover from life's physical and mental stresses, and REM sleep disturbances are common in mood disorders, such as depression.

The first step is being aware that seasonal issues occur in humans and pets. Actively pursuing measures that get you moving, even at times when you don't feel like it, is essential to physical and mental health.

When you get back to practicing the good habits mentioned above, you will have a head start as spring approaches, and you'll be ready for more outdoor activities as the weather improves.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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