For winter sports enthusiasts, the onset of colder weather signals the beginning of snow-related fun. Yet for others, the shorter days and often colder temperatures trigger a cascade of symptoms, some not so pleasant. Feelings of depression, anxiety, and moodiness commonly accompany what scientists have termed Seasonal Affective Disorder, or quite aptly, SAD. How might personal trainers help their clients suffering from this affliction or even know what to look for?

Less Sunlight, More Symptoms

SAD, a seasonal and cyclic form of depression, manifests itself with symptoms that appear and disappear at about the same time each year. Most prevalent when the days grow shorter with the Winter Solstice, symptoms may last until the advent of spring. Most commonly found to occur in women, and in individuals under 40 years of age, experts believe SAD evolves due to a lack of sunlight.

Seasonal Affective Disorder also appears more often among individuals living far from the equator. This may be due to an even more pronounced decrease in sunlight hours during the winter in these locations. It’s important to note that SAD is “not a disorder in and of itself, but rather a specifier called ‘with seasonal pattern’ that we add to an existing diagnosis like major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.”

Altered Sleep Cycle and Depression

Light-sensitive circadian rhythms also come into play. Interference with one’s sleep cycle has much to do with this process. The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt the body’s internal clock, which lets us know when we should sleep. This disruption often leads to feelings of depression.

The symptoms associated with this disorder do in fact mimic those of traditional depression:

-a lack of interest in normal activities

-social withdrawal


-craving foods high in carbohydrates

-weight gain

Melatonin and Brain Chemistry

Some scientists have linked Sesaonal Affectxive Disorder to a biochemical imbalance in the brain, prompted by shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in winter. Increases in melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, typically go hand-in-hand with SAD. The level of this hormone, frequently linked to depression, increases measurably in affected individuals when wintry days shorten along with diminished daylight hours.

In addition, lower levels of serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in Seasonal Affective Disorder. Reduced hours of sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, perhaps leading to depression.

Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Helping our personal training clients make it successfully through the winter season takes creative managing/treatment. One easy fix requires extra exposure to sunlight during the colder months. Many sufferers rely upon light therapy to help alleviate severe symptoms. The two forms of  light therapy include:

Bright Light Treatment: involves sitting in front of a “light box“ for half an hour or longer each day, usually in the mornings;

Dawn Simulation: a dim light goes on in the morning while the individual is still asleep, and gradually gets brighter, approximating a sunrise.

Light therapy boasts an impressive track record with most individuals. Very often relief from symptoms comes within a week or so after embarking on light therapy. To derive the fullest benefit, one needs to stick with the light therapy and use it every day until the season changes. If not, the depression will usually return.

As a coach, perhaps you can encourage your clients to get out first thing in the morning even if it’s for a walk or a drive to the supermarket. Exposure to sunlight in the morning can help regulate hormones.

Make your environment colorful

Color plays a big role in the way we feel; blue, for instance, is typically viewed as a calming color and is often used in doctor’s offices to help patients relax. Bright, bold colors are a great mood booster, so pick your favorites and make sure they’re visible wherever you decide to work out. Choose hues that make you happy–your client will likely find them comforting, too–and incorporate them into your fitness space and even your workout clothing (and encourage your client to do the same).

Movement and Proper Nutrition May Help

Multiple studies have shown how engaging in physical activities can help improve mood and energy, especially in conjunction with bright light therapy. Outdoor activity, especially first thing in the morning, may help provide an uptick in mood while also offering an opportunity for extra exposure to daytime sunlight. Encourage your clients to try something new, such as hiking or ice skating. Shoveling snow can provide an excellent workout as well.

Making good food choices during the colder months can help improve mood and lessen the effects of SAD. Serotonin gets released upon consuming carbohydrates, including fruits, dairy, and starches. Derived from the amino acid tryptophan, serotonin enhances calmness, improves mood, and lessens depression. Dopamine and norepinephrine, released after consuming protein-rich foods, may enhance mental concentration and alertness.

According to Dr. Paul Nestadt, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Anxiety Disorders Clinic and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, “We tend to eat more carbohydrates in the cooler months. Think comfort food. While it may feel soothing in the moment, reaching for that mac and cheese meal might actually be contributing to your feelings of seasonal affective disorder….It’s clear that food plays a role in mental health in general, and we know that the gut microbiome is incredibly important for how mood is regulated in general.”

Since half of the world population is likely low in vitamin D, this is an important micronutrient to prioritize for everyone, given its strong correlation with mood.

The following recommendations can help alleviate dips in mood and SAD in particular:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Eating foods rich in these compounds can support mood. Look for wild salmon, pasture-raised eggs, and walnuts. Fats can also help to keep your clients sated longer, discouraging overeating and carb cravings.
  • Herbal teas. Is there anything more soothing than a steaming cup of herbal tea on a dreary winter day? Chai teas that also contain spices like cinnamon and ginger can lend a sense of warmth and comfort that may be soothing if you’re not feeling so great. And it’s a delicious way to hydrate.
  • Cinnamon. This “hot” spice contains free radical-scavenging properties and constituents can help regulate blood sugar as well.
  • High-fiber carbs. “It’s important to have a high-fiber diet because of its anti-inflammatory properties,” Nestadt says. “We think that some types of depression might be fueled by inflammatory processes.” Fiber can regulate blood sugar and also keep you feeling fuller longer.
  • Probiotics and fermented foods.  Increasing ‘good bacteria’ in your gut by eating fermented foods such as pickles, yogurt, kombucha and sauerkraut as well as taking a quality probiotic supplement can help thwart mood disorders linked to an imbalanced gut.
  • Serotonin-boosting foods. Foods that contain tryptophan can help boost serotonin levels in the body. Food sources of tryptophan include nuts, eggs, turkey cheese, pineapple, and salmon.


Susan Albers, a psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, suggests snacking on pumpkin seeds rather than the empty carbs most individuals crave. “Research has shown that people who have low magnesium also experience a great deal of anxiety because magnesium helps bind to receptors that are calming…Also, magnesium blocks receptors and neurotransmitters that are more energizing. Unfortunately, about 79% of the world’s population is low in magnesium.”

Other good magnesium-laden choices include leafy greens, nuts and beans.


Take-Home Message

Even with these treatment options, some individuals experience Seasonal Affective Disorder on a more severe level. Take signs and symptoms seriously. As with other types of depression, SAD can worsen and lead to problems if left untreated. These can include:

-suicidal thoughts or behavior

-problems at school or work

-substance abuse

Treatment can help prevent complications, especially if diagnosed before symptoms spiral out of control. Counseling sessions with a trained psychotherapist, and occasionally the prescribing of antidepressant drugs, can help alleviate the difficulties associated with severe Seasonal Affective Disorder.

We know those shorter days tend to leave many individuals feeling down, especially when low temperatures and dreariness continue for months on end. But what may seem like a typical case of the “winter blues“ for some may in fact have more serious repercussions for others.

If you find yourself  — or your clients — feeling down for days at a time with no apparent explanation, and can’t seem to generate energy or motivation for activities you normally enjoy, see a healthcare professional. With the proper treatment, the cold shorter days do not have to be SAD at all!


4. Eastman, Ch. I.; Young, M. A., Fogg, L. F., Liu, L., & Meaden, P. M. (1998). Bright light treatment of winter depression: A placebo-controlled trial. Archives of General Psychiatry, 55, 883-889.
5. Wehr, T. A., & Rosenthal, N. E. (1989). Seasonality and affective illness. American Journal of Psychiatry, 146, 829-839
6. Lurie Sj, Gawinski B, Pierce D, Rousseau SJ. Seasonal affective disorder. American Family Physician. 2006;74:1521-1524.




Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!