7 Ways Women Can Enjoy More Energy in Winter
It’s early February, but already I’m feeling it. Are you?
It’s that draggy, tired, “blah” feeling that winter can bring. Many areas of the country have experienced some pretty severe winter storms, with one coming right after the other, giving us little time to recover in between.
I know I’ve been shoveling the walk and the drive more often than I’ve had to in the past few years, and my shoulders and back are telling me about it. In addition to that, it’s been tough to get any outdoor walks in, as the winds have been blowing hard and the temperatures sinking far below zero.
All this leads to the desire to just sleep, and sleep, and oh, how about a nap? Yet most of us can’t afford to give in to that temptation. There’s just too much to do! So I wondered—what are the best ways to boost energy during the cold winter season?
How Winter Saps Our Reserves
You’ve probably already heard about seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, and how it tends to leave us feeling a bit blue, or even quite depressed, during the winter months when the days are short. Thankfully, we’ve passed the winter solstice, which means that our days are already getting longer. (Have you noticed?) Still, with all the clouds and winter storms, many of us are still seeing precious little sun.
The human body and brain need sunshine for optimal energy. It not only helps us manufacture vitamin D (critical for many health reasons—check out our post on that), but it boosts levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin, shores up the immune system, and improves quality of sleep. In fact, a recent study found that workers exposed to natural light during the day were more likely to get a restful sleep at night.
When we’re not getting much sun exposure, our mood tends to suffer and we don’t sleep as well, which can throw off our hormones and lead us to crave more heavy carbohydrates, which slow us down even further. Our immune system weakens, which can leave us vulnerable to cold and flu infections, and we feel less like exercising, so we don’t. Add to that the fact that all that darkness stimulates the body to make more melatonin, which is the hormone that controls how sleepy you feel, and the result is a body and mind that just don’t feel like doing much at all!
The cold weather doesn’t help, either. It takes energy to stay warm, so even if you’re saving money by turning down the thermostat, you’re using more of your own energy to stay comfortable, which can be good for your waistline, but may also be sapping your energy reserves. The immune system has to work harder to keep you healthy, which takes energy, and of course, you need extra energy to do all the shoveling and all the other chores that tend to pile up in the winter season. (Leaky basement, anyone?)
Then there’s the overall “hassle” factor that winter can create. Dangerous roads means that your commute is likely to take longer, particularly when a slide-off stalls traffic for hours. When school is cancelled because the temperatures make it too dangerous, you’ve got extra child-care concerns, and does anyone enjoy dressing in all those extra layers that you have to take on and off four or five times a day?
Obviously we have a lot of things working against optimal energy during the winter season. Fortunately, we don’t have to lose the battle. Below are seven things you can do to boost energy, improve your mood, and feel more like you can handle all this, after all.
7 Ways to Boost Energy During the Cold Winter Months
The key is to try to incorporate new habits into your daily life to keep your energy going. If you stop, you’re likely to start feeling tired again.
1. Get more light exposure.
This one makes sense, but it can be difficult to do in the winter. In the northwest where I live, we become little sun-chasers. The instant the sun comes out, we get out. Whether we’re at work, running errands, or whatever, we point our faces to the sun. We break from our computers and step outside. We take quick walks (weather permitting). We hover by windows. In our cars, we roll the windows down for a bit. Even 10 minutes of sun exposure can make the difference between dragging through your day and feeling good.
On those days when the sun has taken a vacation, use artificial lights. SAD “light boxes” are specially made to stimulate sunlight, and they are available everywhere now, even from Wal-mart. Get one of these and set it in your office, home, or wherever you spend most of your day.
So-called “dawn simulator” lights can also be helpful first thing in the morning, but they aren’t the same as SAD light boxes. They can help you wake up naturally in the morning, but don’t have the “full spectrum” light that the boxes do.
2. Take a vitamin D supplement.
This is super important for women’s health. Research has shown that three-quarters of Americans are coming up short on their vitamin D levels, and you need this vitamin for so many reasons. Vitamin D helps the body maintain strong bones, supports muscle strength, keeps the immune system working right, protects cells from damage (that can lead to cancer), and supports a healthy cardiovascular system.
Studies have also linked vitamin D deficiencies to depression, so if you’re feeling down in the winter, this could be why. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 600 IU up to 70 years of age, and 800 IU for those 71 and older. Many researchers believe that we actually need more than that for optimal health. The recommended upper limit is 4,000 IUs a day.
You can also eat more foods with vitamin D in them (like fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks), but keep in mind that most of us can’t get enough from our diet. We need the sun, and minus that, we need supplements.
3. Get enough—but not too much—sleep.
We’re a sleep-deprived nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Studies have shown that most of us feel best when we’re getting 7-8 hours a night. Less than that can make us feel tired, as can 9 hours or more. Sleep deprivation is also tied to a number of other health problems, like type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
In addition to increasing your exposure to the sun and light, you can do a lot of other things to increase your odds of enjoying a good night’s sleep. Shut off all the computers, smartphones, and other gadgets at least an hour before bed, and keep them all out of your bedroom (the light on the screens messes with your melatonin). Avoid caffeine and alcohol at least four hours before bed, keep your room cool and dark, and try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
Finally, the most important thing you can do to improve your sleep is to…yes…exercise.
We don’t feel like it! The snow is blowing, we just finished polishing off three pancakes, and we didn’t get much sleep last night. Who can exercise after all that?
You must, if you want to a) sleep well, b) avoid winter weight gain, and c) boost your energy. In fact, you may be feeling fatigued because you have been neglecting your workout. Exercise begets energy. A sedentary life begets…fatigue.
In fact, if you want one cure for winter tiredness, this is it. A 2006 study found that regular exercise increased energy more than a nap did. Have a choice? Take a walk.
“If you’re physically inactive and fatigued,” said researcher Patrick O’Conner, Ph.D., “being just a bit more active will help.”
You can decrease your expectations during the winter if you like. You don’t have to run a marathon or beat the instructor in your spin class. If you are already feeling fatigued, limit your goals to just walking. We can all do that, and it’s amazing how much better it can make you feel. Just walk, somewhere, for 30 minutes. Do that every day, and you’ll be surprised at how much more energy you’ll have.
Then, if you can work a little strength training in there, you’ll help keep your muscles toned, which burns more calories. That can also help boost your energy. Keep a few hand weights by your desk, or take them with you when you walk. Try doing a few push-ups before lunch, or a few squats at the start of your workday. Think little movements throughout your day.
5. Watch your weight.
Winter is the hardest season in which to avoid weight gain. All that cold weather and darkness messes with our hormones, which causes us to crave carbs. We exercise less than we do in the warmer months, and we also tend to crave sweets.
It’s a natural process. When the temperatures drop, the body goes into self-preservation mode and seeks sugars and starches that provide instant “heat.” All those simple carbs break down quickly, giving the body what it wants, but they also tend to spike blood sugar levels, which crash later on, leaving us hungry and tired again.
Those who are suffering from SAD will also naturally crave carbs, because they create a serotonin rush. Instant feel-better solution! On top of that, when we’re inside more and it’s dark and gloomy, researchers say it’s natural to want to eat more.
All that adds up to weight gain, and the more fat cells we carry around with us, the more fatigued we’re going to feel. Studies show that the average person tends to gain at least 1-2 pounds over the winter, but many of us gain a lot more. That can lead to feelings of sluggishness, and worse, to long-term weight gain, as odds are, we won’t lose that weight when summer comes around.
The solution is two-fold: 1) weigh yourself every day, and 2) watch what you eat. Studies have shown that daily weigh-ins help us keep better track of how our behaviors are affecting our waistlines, making it more likely that we’ll make corrections before things get out of hand.
Then, you can short-circuit your carb cravings by eating more high-fiber, high-protein foods, and choosing healthy fats. These break down more slowly in your system, and will help keep you satisfied. Think peanut butter, low-fat cheese, low-fat chocolate milk, yogurt, olive oil, nuts, fatty fish, bran cereals, beans, and lean meats. Check your nutrition values and look for fiber and protein.
Finally, make a point to take smaller portions and to eat slowly. Drink more water, as it helps you feel fuller, faster, and is also important for hydration in the winter months.
One more thing: consider supplements. In addition to vitamin D, a B complex vitamin, fish oil supplement, and probiotics can all help improve your energy levels this winter. Always check with your doctor first.
6. Manage stress.
After a few days of battling a winter storm, the stresses can pile up, especially if you were in an accident, if something broke in your house, or if you had to miss work and now are behind.
Stress ramps up hormones that can mess with our sleep, diets, and energy levels. We can’t avoid stress, but we can make time to participate in stress-relieving activities. Get together with friends and family, make an appointment for a massage, spend time doing yoga or tai chi every day, meditate (find easy ways to work mindfulness into your day here), spend time with your pets, craft, or try other stress-relieving activities.
One of my favorite ways to diffuse stress is to ask myself one simple question: How can I make myself happy today? Try it. It works wonders.
7. Get excited about something.
I tend to stay motivated and energetic through the early months of the year because that’s when I work on new writing projects. I have two books I’m working on right now, for example, and that gets me up and gets me going in the morning.
One of the reasons we feel fatigued and “blah” in the winter months is that we have nothing to look forward to. If that’s true for you, try to change that. Is there something you’ve wanted to do in your life but you haven’t? Can you get started now? Even small steps toward a cherished goal can boost your energy, and winter is a good time, because there is usually less going on in other parts of our lives, so we can take advantage of the extra hours.
Maybe you can plan a trip away when the spring comes. Even just a four-day trip somewhere can be enough to get you excited about planning and going. Some other ideas:
- sign up for a class and learn something new, either in your town or online
- tackle a home-improvement project that doesn’t require major construction
- make something—woodwork, crafting, quilting, photography, whatever suits your fancy
- embrace the season and learn a new winter sport
- read—get some of those books you’ve been wanting and enjoy them
In the end, winter may blow and bite, but one thing we can count on is that it won’t last. Hang in there, and do what you can to boost your energy and feel good. After all, it may be cold outside, but it doesn’t have to feel that way inside your heart.
As author Albert Camus said, “In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”
David DiSalvo, “To Get More Sleep, Get More Sunlight,” Forbes, June 18, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2013/06/18/to-get-more-sleep-get-more-sunlight/#329028791da2.
Jennifer Warner, “Exercise Fights Fatigue, Boosts Energy,” WebMD, November 3, 2006, http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20061103/exercise-fights-fatigue-boosts-energy.
University of Georgia, “Regular Exercise Plays a Consistent and Significant Role in Reducing Fatigue,” Science Daily, November 8, 2006, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/11/061101151005.htm.