When the days are short and the air is cold, it can be difficult to find the motivation and energy to get up and walk around. Out-of-sync circadian rhythms can make even everyday activities challenging. “Winter isn’t a season, it’s an occupation,” Sinclair Lewis once wrote.
While the winter blues are not uncommon, there are many easy ways to beat them, says Carla Melby-Oetken, University of Iowa health coach liveWELL.
“Every small step counts,” she says. “My top tips are to find ways to be active, stimulate your senses, connect with others, and engage in activities you enjoy. Turn up the music at home and dance in your kitchen. Take an online yoga class. Or pack up — shifts really help — and get outside.”
Here are 10 tips to help lift your spirits in the final stretch of winter:
1. Stay active. Consider participating in a collegiate sport or trying a group fitness class, from cardio-inspired dance classes to calming, meditative yoga classes at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, often recognized as one of the top collegiate recreation facilities in the country. UI Recreational Services also manages the Field House, Fitness East and the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex. You can rent snowshoes or cross-country skis through the Outdoor Rental Center.
2. Go outside. A recently published study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport showed that people who walked 30 minutes three times a week at lunchtime reported an improvement in their mood and felt more relaxed. “Getting out the door is the hard part,” says Melby-Oetken. “Give yourself a pat on the back for taking that first step, and then stimulate your brain by exploring the great outdoors.” Check out this list of hiking routes on or near campus for inspiration . About 15 miles north of campus, the university-managed Macbride Nature Recreation Area offers more than 6 miles of trails for hiking or cross-country skiing.
3. Eat well. Various studies have shown that increased fruit and vegetable consumption and a diet high in fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (think salmon, sardines and tuna) have positive effects on mood. Avoid sugary and processed foods. Student Wellness offers free nutrition counseling to UI students, as well as a free four-week workshop on intuitive eating.
4. Sleep well. Sleep and mood are closely related. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep every day – and stick to a schedule. For best results, put the electronics away before you go to bed. Do you need help? Students can learn good sleep strategies through Refresh, a student wellness program. If you suspect you may have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, make an appointment with the UI Hospitals Sleep Disorder Clinic & clinics.
5. Shine a light. One of the most effective ways to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is light therapy. Bronwyn Threlkeld-Wiegand, director of the UI Employee Assistance Program, recommends using a lightbox daily during the summertime and immediately after waking up. Students can borrow lightboxes for free from Student Wellness. Another good option is to take a brisk walk as the sun rises, perhaps after breakfast or lunch, and sit near windows.
6. See friends and family. Put a coffee date on the calendar. Invite your best friends over for dinner or a game night. “Isolation doesn’t help the winter blues,” says Michael Fletcher, head of college counseling. “Meet friends and family and socialize if you can.”
7. Say it out loud. “Talk therapy is crucial, as is joining a support group,” adds Fletcher. The university counseling offers individual therapies as well as various self-help groups for students. For students who need immediate assistance, UI Support and Crisis Hotline is available 24/7 via phone, SMS or online chat. The Employee Assistance Program provides free short-term counseling to faculty, staff, postdocs, residents and their families.
8. Start a new hobby. Take that instrument you’ve always wanted to try. Learn a new language. Start a puzzle. Join a bowling league. “Maybe you have a creative side that you haven’t used before,” says Melby-Oetken. “Make time for a hobby you enjoy — or take a class and learn something new.”
9. Plan things to look forward to. Numerous studies suggest that expecting something can be almost as pleasant as experiencing it. Visit hawkeyesports.com and purchase a ticket to see the Hawkeyes in action. Discover the university’s world-class collection at the new Stanley Museum of Art. Make an appointment to explore the state park you’ve never been to.
10. Volunteer. Research published in 2020 in the Journal of Happiness Studies suggests that those who volunteer experience a boost in their mental health, are happier with their lives, and report better overall health. The UI Center for Advancement maintains a list of volunteer opportunities on campus, from mentoring students to serving as a museum professor. Every year UI Hospitals & Clinics is supported by more than 1,300 volunteers who devote their time and talent to improving the experience for patients and their families.
Make a commitment to focus on your well-being in 2023. UI liveWELL offers free health coaching for faculty and staff – learn to make simple and sustainable changes, overcome obstacles and develop strategies to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The university also offers Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, an evidence-based stress management program that is offered free of charge to eligible faculty and staff. Student wellness benefits include free wellness coaching, an online assessment tool that shares personalized wellness tips, and the Koru mindfulness program. In addition, UI employees who participate in the Personal Health Assessment will receive tailored feedback and recommendations to improve health, as well as information on campus and community resources.
When the winter blues feel uncontrollable—or you think you have seasonal depression (SAD), a type of depression that occurs when the seasons change – ask for help. Consult your doctor to find out what might be most helpful. For more information or resources, contact the Employee Assistance Program or the University Counseling Service.