The One Simple Step You Can Take to Beat the Winter Blues

One simple move can help combat the mental drain of shorter, darker days — and your body will love it too.

Young woman outdoors in snowy mountains
Photo: Tony Anderson/Getty

At this time of year, when you want every lift you can get, start with this: Head outside. Basking in sunlight for 20 minutes or more a day can be a potent mood elevator — a key spark since fewer hours of daylight can cause you to feel blah or even lead to a case of the winter blues, sometimes diagnosed as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

“I make it a priority to step outside for a walk midday, even if I ran before the sun came up,” says Courtney Dauwalter, an ultrarunner sponsored by Suunto and Salomon. “A dose of sunshine, no matter how small, can fuel my afternoon activities.”

The Best Time to Head Outside

There’s something to be said for rise and shine: According to the American Psychiatric Association, light therapy for treating SAD — that is, sitting under special lights that simulate natural sunlight — is usually recommended for first thing in the morning to get a daily dose of 20 minutes or more. (See: The Health Benefits of Morning Workouts)

Those of us simply looking to stack the deck for a sunnier disposition in our favor can also benefit from a morning blast. “Light first thing in the morning is more powerful than midday at the same intensity,” says Kathryn Roecklein, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Still, she suggests experimenting with midday or afternoon jaunts too, to see what works best for you.

So what’s behind sunlight’s magic touch? It’s been shown that our levels of the mood-influencing neurotransmitter serotonin are higher after a stretch of sunny days, “but the question is whether the effect of light on mood is attributable to the serotonin or some other process,” says Roecklein. “Other options include melanopsin [a protein within eye cells], dopamine, changes in the circadian clock, or direct neural connections from the eyes to the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for emotions. We haven’t found which one it is — or if it’s a combination of the above.” (

Better Yet, Make It a Workout

You can double down on the benefits of your sunshine break by adding exercise. The exact mechanism is a bit of a mystery here too, but brain chemicals known as endocannabinoids — including endorphins — are likely at play.

“We recently found an association between the amount that endocannabinoids increase in the bloodstream with the amount that depressed mood improves in women with depression,” says Jacob Meyer, Ph.D., the director of the Wellbeing and Exercise Laboratory at Iowa State University. Meyer’s research with depressed women also showed that easy exercise appeared as effective as higher-intensity workouts in improving mood.

Tricks for Getting Up and Out

Ready, set, prep — at bedtime. “If you plan to run, do a couple of things before going to bed. Check the weather, then lay out your clothes in a place where you will see them when you wake up. This will be a visual reminder that you planned to go on a run and will cue you to get out of bed on time,” says Caitlyn Hauff, Ph.D., a coeditor of the Journal of Sport Behavior. Not a runner? Try a simple walk or winter hike instead.

For momentum, channel thoughts of your reward, says Anna Frost, a pro trail runner and Merrell-sponsored athlete: “Once you’re out there in nature and the fresh air, you rarely regret it.” In fact, you'll get all these health benefits in addition to a mood boost.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles