Beat the winter blues with 5 science-backed ways to boost your mood

We’ve all been dealt a rough hand in the past few months, making this year’s winter blues that little bit harder to shrug off. Physician Dr. Jenny Brockis is here with the top science-approved tips for getting your mood back on track.

It’s no secret: how you feel determines your energy, decisions and your enthusiasm for life, and your mood is influenced by your environment and experiences.

If the arrival of grey skies and colder weather have added to your challenge of dealing with the ongoing threat of COVID-19, here are five science-backed ways to boost your mood and beat the winter blues.

1. Get into nature

According to the EPA the average American spends 87 percent of their lives indoors and 6 percent of their time in a car, leaving just 7 percent to be outside – and Australians can’t be far behind on that count.

Research has shown spending 120 minutes in nature each week is the minimum threshold for mental wellbeing. Whether it’s a green space such as a park or blue space alongside water, getting outside has been shown to reduce stress and improve health and wellbeing. Try the 30 day wild challenge – getting out into nature for 20-30 minutes every day and enjoy the lasting benefit of a more positive mood and happiness.

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2. Chase the sun

While I’m not advocating sunbaking, being exposed to enough sunlight does more than elevate vitamin D levels: it increases the brain’s release of serotonin, the mood-enhancing hormone that also helps you feel calm and focused. Low levels of serotonin are associated with a higher risk of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)that is typically triggered by the change of season with shorter days and lower levels of sunlight.

Spending a short time in bright sunlight is by far the most effective way to boost your mood because outdoors light is a thousand-fold more intense than any indoor light, with the extra bonus of helping you to sleep better at night.

3. Get moving

It’s time to find your trainers and get moving because the new exercise prescription is to move more, sit less.

Exercise is a fabulous stress buster and mood enhancer, elevating levels of your reward hormone dopamine, serotonin and endorphins; while reducing the stress hormone cortisol.

If the thought of going to the gym or wearing Lycra brings you out in a cold sweat, a brisk walk, dancing and gardening all count. The gold standard is 150 minutes of aerobic huff ‘n’ puff activity per week, but adding in two sessions of strength or resistance training will keep you energised, boost your mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Try some eccentric exercises like walking down the stairs, sitting slooowly into a chair or add some squats, planks or push ups.

4. Cut the crap from your diet

It’s not that we don’t know the healthy food options. The problem is our time poor lives have led to nutritional shortcuts in the form of heavily processed foods that are readily accessible, cheap and designed to be ever-so moreish.

New studies have confirmed too much sugar in our diet depresses our mood. While it’s tempting to reach out for those comfort foods when you’ve had a bad day, they can end up making you feel worse.

Professor Felice Jacka and her team at Deakin University undertook the world’s first trial that showed how adopting a Mediterranean style of diet (plant-based whole foods) over a twelve-week period had a significant impact in reducing symptoms in a group of people who had been diagnosed with moderate to severe depression.

Choose to cut the number of soft drinks, fast food and sweet treats from your diet and add more fresh vegetables, fruits and whole foods.

5. Get enough sleep

If you’re wondering whether sleep matters to mood, just ask any sleep-deprived parent with young children what they think.

Maybe you’ve noticed you’re a little more cranky and irritable after a bad night’s sleep. But with one in three Australians regularly not getting enough sleep, many are at a higher risk of low mood and potential mental health problems.

If anxiety, stress or worry are making it harder for you to sleep well, it’s time to make sleep a priority. Be consistent in your going-to-bed and getting up time, take a couple of mental breaks during the day, do enough physical activity, avoid the sleep poisons of caffeine (after midday), smoking and alcohol. Follow a pre-bed routine, switching off all technology 60-90 minutes before bed, dimming the lights and winding down with a relaxing activity.

The benefit? Waking up feeling bright eyed and bushy-tailed and looking forward to what your day will bring.

Your mood governs your thoughts and behaviours. What will help you to enjoy a happier state of mind and truly thrive?

Dr. Jenny Brockis is a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, global speaker and best-selling author specialising in brain health, mental wellbeing and social connection. Her new book Thriving Mind: How To Cultivate A Good Life is available now.