Now that the holidays are so over and winter is undeniably upon us, it’s hard to overlook the shorter days and drops in temperature, which can be especially dramatic if you live in a colder climate. Whether you’re experiencing a mild chill or a full-on polar vortex, it’s pretty much second nature to want to stay indoors, wear cozy sweaters, and drink frothy lattes till April showers bring May flowers.
But for some people, the wintertime can bring on more than just a craving to cuddle up under the covers. Although the root cause is unknown, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs during the cold-weather season, beginning as early as late fall. Sufferers tend to experience feelings of depression or hopelessness, and present with low energy, sleep issues, and even weight gain, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In short, those “winter blues” you’ve heard about are a real thing.
Even if you don’t have a diagnosed case of SAD, like 14 percent of Americans per the Centers for Disease Control, you might still be feeling less than motivated to get up and move. We get it — it’s cold (and dark) outside! “The thing about Pilates is that you schedule it, you book the appointment, and you’re less apt to say, I’ll do it tomorrow,” says Blossom Leilani Crawford of Bridge Pilates in Brooklyn, New York, on why Pilates is particularly beneficial during winter. Can’t get to the studio? “Book an online workout or Pilates video in [the calendar on] your phone; even doing just 15 minutes of Pilates helps. There’s no way you’re not going to feel better.”
In fact, a regular exercise routine — with dedicated workouts at least three times a week — offers no shortage of benefits for overall well-being, from helping to reduce stress and boost your mood, to increasing energy and improving sleep, according to the National Institute on Aging. Researchers speculate that exercising helps boost the brain’s levels of feel-good serotonin, the same neurotransmitter that antidepressants hone in on. A recent study published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal found that exercisers reported better mental health; they experienced a 42 percent reduction in feelings of sadness, loneliness, and depression, compared to non-exercisers. On the flip side, putting your exercise program on hold (say, for the winter) can actually promote symptoms of depression, per a 2018 study out of the University of Adelaide.
Even if you can’t get to the Pilates studio, there are plenty of simple, quick things you can do to beat the winter blues — and stay feeling good. Read on for some easy exercises and smart strategies for optimal physical and mental health all season long.
For an instant boost in energy or surge of relaxation no matter where you might be, try taking a few deep breaths with intention. “Just sit there and breathe,” advises Crawford, “and see what it feels like without going into the judgment zone. Be there in the moment.”
Why it works: Focused breathing evokes “that link of mind/body, it’s the concentration and the breathing together that is so synergistic and beautiful,” she explains. You can do it in your desk chair, in the car or even while standing and waiting for your coffee.
For some people, such as those who work long hours or have small children to take care of, it can be difficult to get to the studio or gym for a full 60-minute session. The great thing about Pilates is that a little goes a long way, Crawford says. “As a mom, when my kids go to sleep — at least when I put them to sleep, she jokes — I then go into my room and do 20 minutes of Pilates and it helps me so much. It really relaxes me.”
Want some guidance and encouragement? Try these quickie workouts, each just 10 to 20 minutes long.
The Hundred is a foundational Pilates exercise that’s designed to coordinate your movement with your breath, to get your blood circulating and your body warm. In other words, it’s the perfect pick-me-up for that midday slump. If you don’t feel like doing the full-blown exercise, we feel you! Try this less daunting variation from Crawford: Allow your feet and/or legs to rest on the mat, to decrease the abdominal challenge, and elongate your inhales and exhales up to 10 counts.
When cold weather hits, “the parts that get really tight are the ankles—because we’re stuck in boots all day — and the feet, neck, and shoulders,” Crawford says. And as you’re probably (painfully) aware of, when we’re experiencing tension in our bodies, our energy takes a nosedive. The good news is that some simple stretches can make a big impact. Try these Crawford-approved movements throughout the day:
For the feet: Lie down (or sit on a chair) and do simple ankle circles; roll a ball (a tennis ball or even a bouncy ball will do) under your feet; perform calf stretches.
For the neck: Do small, gentle circles with your head, moving in a figure-eight pattern, as you breathe deeply and try not to shift in your torso; then move one ear toward one shoulder and repeat with your opposite ear/shoulder.
For the shoulders: Place your right palm against a wall with your arm extended, allowing your left arm to relax at your side, and turn your chest and head to the left. Hold the stretch, allowing your pectoral muscles to release. Repeat on your opposite side.
It’s always beneficial to begin a workout with a warm-up — and that’s especially true when it’s freezing outside. “In the deep cold, you need to get the heart rate going,” Crawford says. “It’s called warming up for a reason."
“Do some little hops or jumping jacks to get that warm feeling from the inside out. Or even a few minutes of Cat/Cows for the spine and Hip Circles would be great. On a really cold day, [my Pilates teacher] Kathy [Grant] would get people to jog around the classroom.”
Got five minutes to spare in the morning? Do this prop-free series before you leave the house.
Studies have shown that enlisting a workout partner can help you stay on track — and have more fun, too! In fact, a 2016 study conducted at the University of Aberdeen found that working out with a friend not only helped to increase exercise frequency, but it provided a dose of emotional support, too.
“Maybe you set up a date with a girlfriend to meet at a group class, and then have a chat over coffee afterward,” Crawford suggests. “A little accountability never hurts.”
The next best thing? Take a group Mat, Tower, or Reformer class. The small nature of Pilates classes tends to offer built-in support and camaraderie.
When it comes to Pilates, don’t be afraid to try something new to keep things interesting and to help you stay motivated and challenged, no matter the temperature outside. “The Pilates repertoire is so big and so vast,” Crawford says. “As long as you’re moving you’ll benefit.”
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