The winter blues, or more technically “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” is definitely a real thing. Many suffer from this seasonal malady the world over as the days grow shorter and the sun hides behind skies covered in gray clouds. Many of us are fortunate to have access to facilities like gyms and health clubs that permit us to be active in a warm and comfortable environment—but I don’t think you would be surprised if I told you that physical activity levels tend to drop in the winter months.
Many studies support the finding that as winter rolls in, we roll back on our activity level until the weather warms again. For example, a small study in the United Kingdom looked at adults who wore an activity monitor not unlike a Fitbit—except this one was even more accurate. It’s the device physical activity researchers use everywhere to track activity levels in study populations. The participants in this study completed four, seven-day monitoring periods, one during each season of the year, wearing the monitor 24 hours a day during each period. In the winter time everyone spent more time in bed, and also had lower levels of light-intensity physical activity.
Closer to home, a collaboration of U.S. scientists examined changes in month-to-month physical activity in post-menopausal women as part of the WOMAN trial: Women On the Move through Activity and Nutrition. (Who ever said scientists weren’t creative?) With a similar approach to the United Kingdom study, this group measured the women in each of the four seasons, showing that their daily step counts were highest in the summer, lower in the fall, lowest in winter, and then increased in the spring.
Not that this was myth that needed busting or confirming—the struggle is real! But the point here is that the drop in physical activity that we feel like we experience is in fact measurable.
The solution? The authors of both studies concluded that, because of the measurable decline in activity during the winter months, public health and other organizations tasked with population health should focus their efforts during winter to combat this natural decline. I also hope that clever device manufacturers like Fitbit and Garmin synthesize these findings into their product design and craft innovative ways to nudge us during the winter months to be more active. While being active in the summer can surely be more fun, remaining active year round is definitely better for you.
With a PhD in Exercise Physiology, Jonathan Dugas spends his days thinking about how we can help more people be more active. With three Ironman finishes and 10 marathons and counting, he’ll see you out on the road.