As the nights draw in and the temperature drops, think about strength or resistance training – no matter your age or fitness level
Is there a shortcut to self-care as the days grow shorter and the weather cooler? Should I just prepare for hibernation, under an electric blanket with a pumpkin-scented candle? Or should I be out there fighting the elements, hacking my circadian rhythm with morning runs and cold showers? Experts suggest that strength training might offer some middle ground if you’re looking for exercise, or any kind of mood boost, to carry you through the seasonal shift.
“Studies have shown that strength training releases a significant amount of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, which will help regulate your mood and increase your ‘happy hormones’,” explains personal trainer and wellness coach Rachael Sacerdoti of It’s So Simple.
“Incorporating weight lifting or bodyweight exercises into your routine can provide a sense of empowerment and accomplishment, boosting self-esteem and helping to alleviate SAD [Seasonal Affective Disorder] symptoms.
Autumn is the time of year when symptoms of SAD are likely to show up, though sufferers can experience it at any time of year according to mental health charity Mind, which describes it as a period of depression “during some seasons in particular, or because of certain types of weather or temperature”. Mind makes it clear that SAD is different to “feeling a bit low in winter” and in fact can turn up at any time of year.
But many people who don’t experience depression when the clocks change still need some extra help to stay well during the cold months, and find the energy and outlook to stick to routines and keep the show on the road.
How strength training can help
“Strength training is known to activate the body’s pathways and trigger the release of endorphins,” explains personal trainer Sacerdoti. “As strength training strengthens our muscles, this will boost our physical capability and confidence – this increased strength and self-assurance has been proven to positively impact mental health and enhance one’s ability to cope with stress and anxiety.”
“Regular exercise (which is the key to being consistent and regular with your routine) can also lower stress hormone levels like cortisol, a common trigger for SAD,” says Sacerdoti. “You can often find when you have SAD that your sleep patterns are disrupted, and through regular physical activity, you can also improve the quality of your sleep.
“Having a positive self-image can also be boosted with exercise, and feeling good about yourself will help you manage your SAD symptoms further.”
How to get started
Sacerdoti advises women to start with 3kg dumbbells for the upper body and 5kg dumbbells for the lower body, depending on your fitness levels and medical history. “You have to go at the pace that is right for you initially until you find a good consistent routine,” she says. (You are never too old to start strength training, adjusted to your level of ability).
“Strength training focusing on working large muscle groups at a time is brilliant for all fitness levels, like squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, and bench presses. These are known as compound movements that provide an effective workout and trigger a more significant release of endorphins.”
But what if you’re worried about having ‘big muscles’ – is strength training still associated with bodybuilding? “I think it is unfortunately still associated with the idea of building muscle that will make women look bulky. This couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Sacerdoti. “[But] there is much more awareness of the benefits and importance of strength training for women. It’s increasingly becoming more popular.”
I’ve also been trying out a trampoline workout called Bounce, which is high intensity cardio-wise, but low impact on the body – great as we age and bone density decreases. All of the Bounce classes offer resistance training, and if you take it up a notch and do the workout with a set of weights, you’ll add in the strength-training element, too.
There are 350 Bounce studios across the UK, but if you don’t even want to leave the house on dark and cold days, you can still join in online. “Our rebounding classes are set to banging tunes which automatically improve your mood,” says founder Kimberlee Perry, founder and chief executive of BounceFitBody. “When you jump on a trampoline, your brain releases feel-good hormones. Endorphins, dopamine and serotonin all work together to make you feel your best.”
Perry points out that her workouts key in to nostalgia and make us feel young again (the lights are low, you’re pretending you’re in a club when it’s really your living room). “Not taking yourself too seriously is also the key to keep light-heartedly and carefree,” she promises.
Bouncing is also much better for you than traditional cardio like running, for several reasons. A Nasa study found rebounding to be 68 per cent more effective than jogging for astronauts seeking to regain bone density and muscle mass on their return from a space mission. As well as being low-impact on your joints and bones, it can even stimulate bone density and therefore reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis.
Strength training vs resistance training
What’s the difference between strength and resistance training? “Strength training aims to improve your muscular strength, involving lifting heavy weights,” explains Sacerdoti, who says that her workouts combine the two for optimal results. “Resistance training increases strength but also improves your muscular tone and overall fitness. You will use lighter weights than with strength training, resistance bands, and do a combination of bodyweight exercises.”
The winter cure
So can strength training really replace outdoor exercise in winter? I’d like to think so, but Sacerdoti recommends still getting outside daily as an important part of our regular routine. We need sunlight to produce Vitamin D and the government recommends we all take a 10mcg Vitamin D supplement during autumn and winter.
“Exercise triggers the release of endorphins; these feel-good chemicals can help counteract the depressive symptoms associated with SAD, promoting a sense of happiness,” she explains.
“Endorphins act as natural mood enhancers and help regulate serotonin levels in the brain, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in mood regulation.”