Women are More Likely to Experience Seasonal Affective Disorder. Can Physical Exercise Help?

Zara Hanawalt • Nov 29, 2023

Even though the holiday season is supposed to be about joy, togetherness, and celebration, let’s get real about one thing: The colder months can usher in feelings of stress, sadness, and loneliness. Some of those feelings may be a mere consequence of shorter days, colder temps, fewer fun activities on the horizon, and a constant parade of cold-weather viruses. But if your symptoms of sadness feel extreme, you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (also known by its very appropriate acronym, SAD). 

Contrary to popular belief, SAD can actually present during other times of the year as well, even the summer — but most people will face it in the fall and winter. 

woman suffering from seasonal affective disorder holding her dog

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

We don’t really know right now, but according to Johns Hopkins University, less sunlight and shorter days may be linked to chemical changes in the brain, which can cause people to experience depressive symptoms in the winter. Melatonin may also play a role, as the sleep-related hormone is produced in the body when it’s dark. The lack of sunlight during the colder months may create more melatonin in the body, which could contribute to SAD.

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding SAD. This makes sense because it is, like most issues that we don’t have enough information about, something that affects women more than men. 

So how can people suffering from the disorder deal with it, aside from simply waiting for the season to change? Can lifestyle modifications help? Is exercise an effective way to manage those symptoms? Is it enough? Read on for more info.

Why does SAD affect women more frequently than men?

According to Desiree Taranto (LMHC), the Clinical Director at Empower Your Mind Therapy, “SAD is a depression that usually occurs in the late fall through wintertime. It is correlated with lack of sunlight, less social activity and physical movement, and moodiness.”

Taranto cosigns what we’ve heard about SAD affecting women more commonly, saying that the issue affects women at least two times more than men. “This could be linked to puberty and hormones and the fact that women in general are likely to experience depression more than men do,” she explains.

What other factors can make someone more likely to experience SAD?

There are several factors that may predispose someone to SAD — and they can be both environmental and personal.

“SAD [may affect] those who are located more north because there are shorter daylight hours in the winter,” says Taranto. 

Having depression already can certainly make a person feel the symptoms of SAD more than others. Other factors could be drinking alcohol, smoking and lack of social activity,” she adds.

What are some signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, increased sleep/drowsiness, social withdrawal, irritability, trouble thinking clearly, and loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy are among the most common symptoms of SAD. People may also experience more hunger, weight gain, or even physical symptoms such as headaches.

Taranto adds that people may also experience “feelings of depression, worthlessness, low energy, fatigue, and lack of interest in usually enjoyable activities, or anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure)”.

woman suffering from seasonal affective disorder in bed

Can Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) be managed with physical exercise?

To some extent, lifestyle factors can help with the symptoms of SAD. 

“Regular exercise may help decrease symptoms of SAD,” says Taranto. “The release of those ‘feel good’ endorphins can give you the boost you need. Any low-impact aerobic exercises can help as well, such as walking, jogging, dancing or light stretching with yoga.”

There are other lifestyle choices people can make that may help ease those symptoms as well.

“Exposure to sunlight is a big one, so during the hours when there is sunlight, try to get the most out of it,” says Taranto. “There are also sunlight lamps. Light therapy has proven to be a successful method of helping with symptoms of SAD.”

And while it may be tempting to give into the symptoms that tell you to lounge around by yourself while dealing with SAD, pushing yourself to be around others may help.

“Trying to be more social can help,” says Taranto. “Reach out to others, do more social activities.”

Lifestyle modifications may not be enough, though

In some cases, help from a therapist or psychiatrist may be necessary in order to really address a case of SAD. Talk therapy can help, but for some people, medication may be necessary to fully address the issue.

“If the symptoms of SAD are severe and/or life-threatening, you should seek therapy and/or medication. If the symptoms are causing you not to live a life worth living, reach out for help,” says Taranto, who adds that anyone who is experiencing physical symptoms (such as aches/pains, headaches cramps and digestive problems) along with mood symptoms, seeking out help is a good idea, as these can be less obvious signs of SAD.

Let’s also clear up some misconceptions about SAD

The biggest misconception about SAD seems to be that it only strikes in the colder months. However, if you feel down specifically in the warmer months, that can also be SAD. 

“Some people think that SAD can only occur during the fall/winter, however, some people experience symptoms of SAD in the spring/summer months as well,” says Taranto. 

Taranto adds that issues like body image concerns (“swimsuit season” is a term we really need to retire, please) and financial constraints (because a packed social calendar and spring break/summer vacations don’t come cheap) can lead to spring/summer SAD. 

“The change in routine, increased FOMO pressures, and lack of structure can also have serious consequences for mental health at a time when it's commonly expected people ‘should’ be enjoying themselves. For those who don't, it can be challenging to ask for help,” she explains.

And while SAD affects women more often than men, it doesn’t only affect women.

“Another misconception is that it only affects women,” adds Taranto. “While it affects women more, men are not immune to the symptoms of SAD.”

man suffering from seasonal affective disorder on a bench

It’s time to take SAD more seriously

The term “seasonal depression” has taken on a casual connotation, with people throwing the term out to mean simply not enjoying the colder months. It’s important that we take the issue seriously, though.

“Another misconception is that SAD is a minor form of depression,” says Taranto.”SAD symptoms meet the criteria of a major depressive disorder and should be treated just as [seriously].”

Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, Marie-Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Motherly, and many others. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.