Working Out the Winter Woes

It’s freezing outside, but inside the Lititz Rec Center, the air is warm.

Sue Morgan is still walking rather gingerly as she finishes her first mile on an incline of two on the treadmill. Her blonde ponytail bobs as she pumps her arms, matching her stride. From time to time, 32-year-old fitness trainer Juliane Flood, standing on the next treadmill over, reaches to adjust Morgan’s treadmill speed. This is interval training, only the first part of the pair’s workout.

“People spend like an hour on the treadmill trying to burn calories,” Flood says as she clicks up Morgan’s speed another notch. “But if you do this high-intensity training, it sparks your body, and your body keeps burning calories after working out.”

After about 20 minutes, Flood and Morgan walk side-by-side into the adjoining weight room. Flood grabs a resistance band and helps Morgan get set up with varied weights. The trainer then instructs her client how to do a circuit of chest exercises, with the goal of hitting the chest from every angle.

Morgan was Flood’s first client at the Rec Center two years ago. She is 44 years old, a grandmother, and easily in better shape than most women half her age. “I just got started for health. I know so many people that are sick with cancer, other things… I might as well do what I can to stay healthy,” says Morgan. And she’s dedicated to her workout routine – so much so that her trainer says she doesn’t need that extra push to hit the gym during the winter months.

Yet, this is precisely when many people falter and lack motivation; when days are shorter and temperatures are colder, the thought of working out seems somewhat foreign. It’s during this time that Flood says keeping fit is paramount: Working out is your first line of defense in the battle against winter depression.

“Any type of workout releases endorphins and adrenaline that make you happy during the ‘winter blues,’” says Flood. “You might hate it when you get in there, but start to walk for 10 minutes and see how you feel.”

Singing the Blues

Most people can agree they feel a bit different in the winter, but they often can’t pinpoint what’s ailing them. Dr. Brian D’Eramo, an internal medicine specialist in Harrisburg, says he sees this all the time.

Commonly referred to as the “winter blues,” seasonal affective disorder (SAD) makes people less energetic, socially withdrawn, depressed or anxious. And while SAD can affect patients during any season, it often strikes in the throes of winter. “I believe SAD is more prevalent than we all think, particularly if you consider the mild form that many dismiss without further thought,” says D’Eramo, adding, “Lots of people, including myself, don’t want to think it is simply the weather that is making us feel down or blue.” According to D’Eramo, even healthy people get a “touch of this” from time to time.

Yet, if that gloomy feeling persists, day in and day out, D’Eramo says it may lead to unhealthful offshoots, like overeating, smoking, drinking or feeling utterly hopeless – a continual cycle of “the never-ending doldrums.”

Food as a Fix

But there are practical solutions to this common problem, according to Marie Acebo, a registered dietitian in Lancaster. In addition to regular exercise, eating well is one effective way to combat the “winter blues.”

“You cannot separate food and energy,” says Acebo. “One of the things that eating healthfully does is it gives us a balance in blood sugar, which can really impact your mood, your energy level and how alert you feel.” Acebo says quite often people modify their diet in the winter months. With limited availability, some have trouble finding their favorite foods at reasonable prices and skimp on nutrients. Others skip meals – like breakfast – altogether, as winter’s lack of sunshine impacts their body rhythm. The result is a feeling of sluggishness that only exacerbates feelings of winter depression.

“But in the winter, your body’s requirement for fruits and vegetables remains the same,” Acebo says, adding, “People feel a lot better when they’re eating better.”

To fight winter depression, she gives her clients ideas that involve canned and frozen vegetables. She also reminds them that although they aren’t sweating in winter temps and reaching for a water bottle, like during the summer months, hydration should still be in the forefront of their minds.

“Most people associate hydration with heat. They drink less in winter, but there’s dryness in every location, like a warm car,” Acebo says. “Most people, including myself, didn’t walk out with a water bottle today to drink on the way to work. We don’t think about it as much in the wintertime because we’re not as hot, but the need is still there.”

Burn Now, Bigger Payout

Back at the gym, a few teenage boys are curiously staring at them, but Morgan and Flood press on with their workout.

Bench press, incline fly, leg raises for abdominals, repeat.

When Morgan finishes a set, Flood carefully raises the workout bench to hit another area of her chest. Flood says her goal is to have Morgan do weights for 45 minutes nonstop, until her muscles are fully exhausted. “I feel excellent. I mean, it’s working, certainly it hurts!” says Morgan, in between reps. “It lifts my mood. If I’m dragging when I come in, I feel energized.”

After 30 minutes of intense weight training with Flood, Morgan pauses, fatigued. She is concentrating, and breathing in a rhythm. At one point, she goes to get up.

“Nope, you have 20 more!” Flood calls out to her.

“She’s a mean girl sometimes,” says Morgan, laughing.

“Your workout routine now affects how you will look in three to six months from now when spring and summer comes around,” says Flood. And while intense workout sessions with a professional may not be on everyone’s winter checklist, finding ways to move and maintain a healthful diet should be. These simple steps keep the dreaded “winter blues” at bay, and promote better overall health in the long run.

“Make the effort to feel better, not just look better,” Flood says. “Everybody is at different stages, but the main goal is to be healthy.”