Shannon Hyland-Tassava tries to run up to 25 miles a week, year-round. It's harder in winter -- icy sidewalks, snowy trails -- but she's determined. As a sufferer of seasonal mood problems, Hyland-Tassava runs for her emotional as well as physical health.
"Starting a few years ago, I just really started feeling the classic things you always hear about when it came to seasonal mood changes: more tired, more lethargic, more irritable, less motivated to be active and go out and do," said Hyland-Tassava, 41, of Northfield, Minn. "In the spring and summer, I typically felt fantastic."
A couple of years ago, on the advice of her nurse-practitioner, she started using a broad-spectrum light box and found it helpful. Running is her other important therapy.
"I get such benefit, mentally, from running outdoors," said Hyland-Tassava, a psychologist and the author of "The Essential Stay-at-Home Mom Manual" (Booktrope Editions, 2011). Hyland-Tassava works as a life coach and often recommends outdoor activity for her clients. "I firmly believe in the power of exercise to affect mood positively and there's very strong research to support it."
Research suggests that exercise can be as effective as medication in combating depression -- and comes with positive side effects instead of negative ones, said Beth Lewis, a University of Minnesota psychologist who studies exercise psychology. Even the mildly melancholic can share in this prescription-free mood booster.
How much exercise? No need to train for a marathon: Even 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity (e.g., walking the dog) can provide "significant health benefits," Lewis said. But studies show that only a small percentage of Americans do even that much.
If you haven't been active for a while, start small, Lewis suggested: "Getting out of the house for 10 minutes is something." Since SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and winter blues are linked to loss of sunlight, logic suggests that midday outdoor exercise would be especially beneficial, although indoor exercise helps, too.
Looking ahead to future winters, those who suffer from seasonal mood problems are better off forming an exercise habit long before the symptoms kick in, Lewis said. "Prevention is always better than treatment."
Once depression has you in its clutches, it has a way of holding you fast to the couch. Dr. Scott Crow, a psychiatry professor at the University of Minnesota who has focused on mood disorders, said, "If you're stuck enough, exercise is hard."
Years ago, Dawn Carlson of Minneapolis suffered from seasonal affective disorder so severe that a couple of times it didn't even fade in the spring, lingering instead and turning into regular clinical depression. But a couple of decades ago, she started managing the wintertime bouts with a low dose of Prozac and a light box. In recent years, as she has become more physically active -- weight-training, horseback-riding and "a smidge of cardio" -- she finds she no longer needs the light box, though she keeps it on hand just in case.
Does she actually enjoy winter now?
"No," Carlson said, after a pause -- "but I don't dread it."