If winter’s got you down, blame it on the season’s shorter days. Fewer hours of daylight can leave you feeling blue and fatigued. For some, it can even lead to depression in the form of seasonal affective disorder — or SAD.
About 1 percent to 2 percent of U.S. adults meet the criteria for seasonal depression, said Dr. Kelly Rohan, a professor of psychological science at the University of Vermont and an expert in SAD. Those dealing with SAD should seek professional help.
But if you have a simple case of the winter blues, you can shake it by taking these steps. These strategies won’t cost you much — or anything at all — but the payoff will be big. Click through to see how you can beat the midwinter blues.
1. Take an Early Morning Walk
Exercise helps release mood-boosting endorphins that can help combat winter blues. “One thing that is helpful, based on research, is to go on a 30-minute walk first thing in the morning after sunrise,” said Rohan. You’ll get two benefits from doing this: exercise and exposure to bright light, which is a therapy used to treat SAD.
Instead of heading to the gym, put on more clothing and head outdoors. The benefit will far outweigh the cost of bundling up and braving the cold, Rohan said. “We should take advantage of the light that is available to us,” she said.
2. Be Social
It’s easy to go into hibernation mode during the winter, Rohan said. You want to avoid the cold, so you head home after work every night, curl up on the couch and watch TV. But it’s easier to fall into the midwinter blues if you isolate yourself.
For a natural anti-depressant, be social, Rohan said. Meet friends for coffee, go to happy hour and don’t skip your book club meetings.
“See other people even though it takes more effort,” she said. You can still save money and have fun by meeting friends at free events in your community, going to movie matinees rather than pricier evening shows or taking advantage of discounts on activities from sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial.
Volunteering is a budget-conscious way to chase away winter gloom, said Elizabeth Avery, founder of travel website SoloTrekker4U. In fact, it’s a free way to be social and contribute to your community.
For example, you could help provide meals through one of the Salvation Army’s soup kitchens, food pantries or mobile meal programs. You could volunteer to teach English as a second language to adults. Or you could volunteer to walk dogs at your local animal shelter. “In cold, wet weather, volunteers may be scarce while the need continues,” Avery said.
4. Join a Bootcamp
If you can’t bear the thought of an early morning walk outside or need motivation to stay active, consider a group fitness class — which has the added benefit of a social element.
“I joined a boot camp at my local gym that costs $50 a month that lasts an hour long,” said Rob Andersen, creator of the blog MustardSeedMoney. He goes five times a week, so he’s paying about $2.50 per session. “The best part is I have met a ton of like-minded people and have definitely derived more entertainment than the $2.50 I pay per session,” he said.
5. Go for a Hike
Even occasional exercise — especially if done outdoors — can boost your mood. Rohan suggested taking a hike through the woods or along a lake.
You likely can find hiking trails at state or local parks that offer free or cheap admission, said DealNews editor Benjamin Glaser. If you don’t have enough winter apparel to stay warm, you’ll find cold-weather clothing and gear marked down more than 50 percent in retailers’ clearance sections, Glaser said.
6. Host a Potluck
Be social and beat the winter blues without spending much money by hosting a potluck game night party. Pull out board games you have, or check thrift stores for inexpensive used games, Glaser said.
“Ask your guests to contribute a drink, dish or even some paper plates and cups,” he said. “As long as you’re the one who has to clean up, they’ll be happy to pitch in.”
For food that you prepare, avoid pricey pre-made items.
“Using raw ingredients and drawing on items already in your pantry, you can make things like dips and hot dishes like chili for as little as $1.50 per person per dish,” Glaser said. “So for a get-together of 20 people, you could get by on $30 for food, and a few bucks at the thrift store for games.”
7. Start a New Hobby
It’s good to stay active to avoid feeling blue in the winter. But it might be hard if your interests are geared toward warm weather, Rohan said. So she recommended finding a new winter hobby.
For example, you might want to improve your cooking skills. Search online or on YouTube for cooking tutorials that can help you become a whiz in the kitchen — or at least create a meal that’s edible. If you have kids, you can get them involved and turn it into a fun family activity.
8. Cultivate an Herb Garden
You might be able to boost your mood if you adapt a summer activity, such as gardening, to the winter. Rohan suggested cultivating an herb garden in your kitchen window.
“It’s a way to keep your green thumb active in the winter months,” she said.
Bringing plants into your home in the winter might have the added benefit of improving air quality. Researchers at the State University of New York at Oswego found that certain house plants — such as bromeliad plants — can help remove harmful compounds from the air.
9. Think Positive About Winter
To beat the winter blues, Rohan said you need to stop thinking negatively about winter. Telling yourself that you don’t like the season and that you can’t function as well in the cold will only bring you down.
“Thinking is extremely related to mood,” she said. “If we relinquish all control to Mother Nature, it’s a pretty pessimistic picture.”
Instead, focus on a positive aspect of winter. Think about how you enjoy sitting in front of a fire, watching the snow fall or snuggling with a loved one to stay warm. By challenging your thoughts about the season, you can change your mood.
10. Reset Your Internal Clock
“A profound way to brighten your everyday winter blues is to advance the circadian rhythm so you wake up happy,” said Richard L. Hansler, founder of LowBlueLights.com and author of several books on the effects of light on health.
You can do this by resetting your internal clock. Aim to go to bed earlier each night so you can wake earlier in the morning.
“Exposing your eyes to lots of light when you get up will help in resetting your internal clock,” he said. In the evening, though, you should limit your exposure to artificial light — in particular, blue light that’s emitted by electronics.
11. Go Ice Skating
Ice skating can be a great way to boost your winter mood, said David Bakke of personal finance website MoneyCrashers. It makes being out in the cold fun — or you might be able to stay a little warmer if your city has an indoor rink. Plus, it’s a relatively inexpensive activity.
“There’s an ice skating venue near me where you can skate for two hours for just $9,” Bakke said.
12. Play in the Snow
Beat the winter blues by getting in touch with your inner child. “If there’s snow on the ground, bundle up and head out for a snowball fight,” Bakke said. Or take advantage of the snow to go sledding, build a snowman or create snow angels, he said.
The key is to spend time outside during daylight hours. Playing in the snow can make that time more fun.
13. Visit a Botanical Garden
If you can’t escape to a tropical island during winter, you might be able to recreate the experience for a few hours. Dawn-Marie Mutell, a life coach and founder of the website Life’s Necessities and Luxuries, recommended visiting an indoor botanical garden.
The temperature inside will warm you, she said. And the tropical plants will help you feel like you’re miles away from the cold weather outside.
Meditation can help you ease out of the winter doldrums. It helps you disconnect from thoughts and emotions connected to the outside world.
“Meditation is an effective way to beat any form of blues,” said Ariel Banayan, co-founder of personal development blog HabitNest. “Taking just five or 10 minutes to detach from one’s thoughts by sitting quietly reminds us that we don’t have to be subject to whatever emotions we’re feeling or thoughts that are running through our minds.”
15. Take Magnesium Supplements
Increasing your magnesium intake might help you fend off the winter blues.
“Numerous studies have shown its effectiveness in boosting mood, lowering anxiety, depression and reducing stress levels, as well as helping with deeper, more restful sleep,” said Dr. Carolyn Dean, a stress management expert and author of “The Magnesium Miracle.”
Most Americans don’t get their recommended daily allowance of this mineral, she said. Dean recommended mixing magnesium citrate powder — which is a highly absorbable form of the mineral — with water to sip throughout the day.