Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs in the winter in countries that are far from the equator.

Also known as SAD, it is sometimes referred to as winter depression. As winter approaches, the mornings start later and the evenings begin earlier, so there is less sunlight each day. Experts say SAD is most likely caused by lack of sunlight alone and not by cold temperatures.

Depressive symptoms usually build up slowly as days start getting shorter, and they gradually subside in early spring, as the amount of sunlight rises each day.

Fast facts on SAD:

  • SAD did not receive a clinical name until the early 1980s.
  • The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of depression.
  • Common symptoms include low mood, lethargy, and social withdrawal.

What is SAD?

SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is a common seasonal issue affecting people who don't get enough natural sunlight.

SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is a subtype of depression.

SAD was first mentioned in scientific literature in 1845 but the condition did not get a clinical name until the early 1980s.

We know that seasonal variations in sunlight have an impact on animal behavior, for example, hibernation, reproduction, and seeking out a mate. Seasonal changes in sunlight affect our circadian rhythms, which are also referred to as our internal biological clocks.

SAD is thought to affect 4-6 percent of people in the United States and is more common among young adults with onset typically between 20-30 years of age. It is often seen in females more than males, although depression is more common, generally, in females.

It also occurs more in areas that are further north. For example, it is seven times more common in Washington State than in Florida.

Interestingly, people can have SAD during the summer, although this is rare.

Symptoms of SAD

The signs and symptoms of SAD are similar to those of depression, but they come on as winter approaches and go away during springtime. In the majority of cases, symptoms come back each year at around the same time.

Symptoms are usually mild as autumn advances, and they worsen as the number of daylight drops. The severity, characteristics, and patterns of SAD can vary considerably from person-to-person.

About four-fifths of people who experience SAD develop unipolar depression, while the rest have bipolar depression. Unipolar means they have persistent depressive symptoms, while bipolar involves swinging from high or manic periods to very low or depressive ones.

The signs and symptoms of SAD include:

  • anxiety
  • feeling guilty and worthless
  • feeling stressed
  • indecision
  • irritability
  • low moods and despair
  • reduced libido
  • crying
  • lethargy, fatigue, hypersomnia
  • increased appetite
  • social withdrawal
  • difficulty concentrating
  • weight gain

Symptoms of spring and summer SAD

Insomnia is a common symptom of spring and summmer SAD.

Insomnia is a common symptom of spring and summer SAD.

Rather than feeling depressed during the winter, some people have symptoms in the spring and summer. This type of SAD is rare, but symptoms can include:

  • insomnia
  • low mood
  • reduced appetite
  • weight loss
  • anxiety
  • agitation

Who has a higher risk of developing SAD?

There are factors that can affect who gets SAD and who is less likely to have the condition.

Sex – females are more likely than males to suffer from SAD, although this may be due to a greater prevalence of depression among women. Males may have more severe symptoms.

Geography – some studies suggest that the further someone lives from the equator, the higher the chances of developing SAD. Put simply, those who live in places where days are considerably shorter in winter are more susceptible.

Genetics – individuals with a close relative who has or had SAD have a greater risk.

Having, or having had depression – people with a history of depression or bipolar depression are more likely to develop SAD than those with no such history.

Causes of SAD

Experts are still unsure of the exact causes of SAD. However, studies have pointed to the following:

  • Circadian rhythm – our body clock. Each of us has an internal body clock that tells us when to be awake and asleep. Less sunlight in the winter is thought to disrupt our circadian rhythm, causing depressive symptoms.
  • Melatonin levels – melatonin is a hormone that influences our sleep patterns and mood. Experts believe that reduced exposure to sunlight through shorter days in winter disrupts our melatonin balance. People with SAD also have decreased serotonin levels during the winter months.
  • The hypothalamus – sunlight is thought to stimulate the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that controls sleep, mood, and appetite, all of which impact on how we feel. Similarly, production of serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, may be affected by low sunlight.

Diagnosis of SAD

The doctor may carry out a physical exam and ask questions covering:

  • How long symptoms have been present, how severe they are, and how they affect daily activities.
  • What eating patterns are like.
  • General lifestyle questions.
  • Sleeping patterns and if they have changed.
  • How thoughts and behaviors change with the seasons.
  • Details about family medical history, such as depression, SAD, etc.

As there are several types of depression, diagnosing SAD accurately may take time. There is no medical or laboratory test that can diagnose the condition. The doctor may order some diagnostic tests, including blood tests, to rule out other illnesses or underlying conditions.

The American Psychiatric Association do not class SAD as a separate disorder under the DSM-5 criteria, but a “course specifier.” They refer to it as “depression with a seasonal pattern.”

Treatments for SAD

According to the American Psychiatric Association, people may alleviate SAD symptoms by boosting their exposure to sunlight. For example, going for long walks outdoors when there is still some sunlight could help.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the United Kingdom recommend that SAD treatment should be the same as for other types of depression, involving psychosocial and antidepressant medication.

Bright light therapy

If symptoms are so severe that they affect a person’s daily life, light therapy is sometimes recommended. Bright light therapy, also known as phototherapy, can help restore circadian rhythm.

With this kind of therapy, a person sits in front of a special light for 30-90 minutes each day. It is important to purchase a light box that is designed for treating SAD. UV lamps, full-spectrum lights, and tanning lamps will not do the same job.

In general, light therapy is required from 30 minutes to 2 hours per day, depending on the strength of the light. Doctors say exposure in the mornings tends to give the best results.

A similar treatment is known as dawn simulation when a special light in the bedroom is programmed to get slowly lighter in the mornings, to simulate dawn.

Experts say this type of phototherapy also helps restore brain chemistry balance. Nobody is sure how all this occurs.

Psychotherapy

Although SAD involves a change in a person’s brain chemistry, therapy that focuses on mood and behavior can also help.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on the premise that it is how a person thinks and reacts to things that cause unhappiness rather than the situation. For example, if the way a person perceives certain situations can be altered, their behavior will change, and their symptoms will be reduced.

CBT usually includes an individual program of self-help, and another for the person and their partner, if appropriate. Sometimes a group program can also be helpful.

Medication

A doctor may prescribe an antidepressant, usually a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which raises serotonin levels.

Antidepressants do not work straight away; they can take from 10 days to 1 month to work well. Experts say antidepressants for SAD are more effective if taken at the beginning of the SAD season before symptoms appear. Usually, they are taken daily until springtime.

People should always follow their doctor’s instruction when taking these drugs.

Self-help

Some people have found that making their environment sunnier and brighter helps alleviate symptoms. Examples include opening blinds and curtains, trimming trees around the house, and sitting closer to the window during daytime.

Even in winter, the sun still comes up, and there is more sunlight outdoors than indoors. So, getting out every day for a long spell in the open air may help.

Similarly, exercise is not only good for the health but alleviates symptoms of anxiety and aids proper sleep. Exercises can also help people nurture a better self-image, which tends to lift their mood.

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How Can You Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder?

With just 30 days left until Christmas, stores have started to sell their festive treats and decorations. But amid the general sense of enthusiasm, many of us will experience low moods, often to a debilitating extent. Why is that, and how can we cope?
girl looking out the window at the snow

Does winter bring you down every year? We give you some tips on how to manage seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the four seasons, typically manifesting during the cold autumn and winter months, when the days are shorter, darker, and chillier.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the main risk factors for SAD are age, sex, distance from the equator (since regions farther to the north and south tend to have shorter days and less sunlight in winter), and a history of depression or other mood disorders.

Studies have shown that “[y]oung adults and women are most likely to experience SAD with the reported gender difference ranging from 2:1 to 9:1.”

People with SAD can experience a range of symptoms, but some of the most commonly reported ones include a sense of fatigue paired with oversleeping, chronically low moods, and strong cravings for carbohydrates, which can lead to excessive weight gain.

SAD can seriously impact productivity and day-to-day lifestyle, as the symptoms — if severe — can prevent individuals from going out, seeing other people, and engaging in some of the normal activities that they would otherwise pursue.

So what can you do if the winter months are getting you down? How can you cope with the lack of motivation, feelings of hopelessness, and debilitating fatigue? Here, we give you some tips on how to tackle SAD head-on.

Hunt down that light

Lack of exposure to natural light is one of the apparent reasons behind winter SAD, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that light therapy — also known as “phototherapy” — would be beneficial in keeping the symptoms at bay.

light box for phototherapy

A light box can help to reduce the symptoms of SAD.

Many studies have indicated that light therapy is usually helpful in treating this seasonal disorder, and for this purpose, you can use one of the many dedicated light boxes that are now available on the market.

But to be effective, you should make sure that the lightbox generates at least 10,000 lux — 100 times stronger than a normal lightbulb, meaning that a regular desk lamp won’t do — and that it has white or blue (not yellow) light.

Also, check that the lightbox was specially made to treat SAD, depression, and other mood disorders and that it’s not made for a different purpose (such as treating psoriasis or other skin conditions).

Lightboxes for skin treatments are another kettle of fish altogether, as they emit ultraviolet (UV) B, which is not safe for the retina. Instead, dedicated SAD treatment light boxes filter out UVs, so they’re safe to use.

Dr. Norman Ronsenthal — who first described SAD’s symptoms and pushed for it to be recognized as a valid disorder — offers some advice on how to use light therapy in his book, Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder. He writes:

  1. Obtain a suitable lightbox.
  2. Set the light box up in a convenient place at home or at work, or both.
  3. Sit in front of the light box […] between 20 and 90 minutes each day.
  4. Try to get as much of your light therapy as early in the morning as possible.
  5. Be sure to sit in such a way that the correct amount of light falls on your eyes. [Dr. Marlynn Wei says it should be placed at eye level or higher, 2 feet away from you.]
  6. Repeat this procedure each day throughout the season of risk.

At the same time, you can add to the beneficial effects of light therapy by making a little extra effort to “hunt down” natural daylight, if possible, and take advantage of it as much as you can.

You could do this by waking up earlier in the morning and going outside where the sunshine is, for as long as it lasts, to allow yourself to feel as though you’re soaking in the light and taking advantage of the whole day.

Eat well, and watch out for the carbs

Research has shown that individuals with SAD tend to eat more carbohydrate-rich foods, especially sweets and starchy foods. They also have a tendency to overeat during these periods of “seasonal lows,” so it’s important that they look after their diets in order to feel more energized.

vegan suitable food

Cut down on the carbs and pile on the fruit and vegetables to feel better.

Over the winter months, as we get less and less sunlight, vitamin D is insufficiently produced in our bodies. Research has also suggested that ensuring we get enough vitamin D may help to prevent and manage depression.

To make sure that you’re getting enough vitamin D during autumn and winter, you could take dietary supplements. Vitamin D is also found in a range of foods that you can easily incorporate into your daily meals.

Salmon, for instance, is naturally rich in D-3, though some studies suggest that wild-caught salmon contains much larger amounts of the vitamin than farmed salmon.

Eggs are a good source of the vitamins D-2 and D-3, and mushrooms also have a high D-2 content, though research suggests that we should stick to wild mushrooms rather than cultivated ones.

Some studies also suggest that people with mood disorders may have an omega-3 fatty aciddeficit, and so supplementation of this nutrient may help to keep symptoms in check.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), some good food sources of omega-3 include various types of fish (salmon, herring trout, and mackerel), chia seeds, flaxseed, and soybean.

Also, research published last year in the American Journal of Public Health points to fruit and vegetables as the foods of choice when it comes to increasing happiness and well-being.

“Eating fruit and vegetables apparently boosts our happiness far more quickly than it improves human [physical] health,” notes study co-author Prof. Andrew Oswald.

The psychological benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption were confirmed by a recent study, from February this year, which focused on the positive effect of a “green” diet on young adults — one of the groups most at risk of SAD.

Make an effort to stay active

Precisely because some of the main symptoms of SAD are fatigue and lethargy, specialists advise that making an effort to stay physically active can offer a boost of energy and improve mood.

review of existing studies surrounding SAD and the effects of exercise on this disorder suggests that the low moods and other symptoms involved in it may be caused by disruptions to the body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm regulates our sleep, eating, and activity patterns according to day-night cycles.

Review author Benny Peiser — from the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moore University in the United Kingdom — explains that taking part in a regular physical exercise during the autumn and winter months can help to maintain an appropriate circadian rhythm, thereby keeping SAD symptoms at bay.

A study recently covered by Medical News Today also demonstrates that even low-intensity exercise done for as little as 1 hour per week can effectively counteract depression.

Don’t give in to reclusiveness

On those dark, cold days, you may be sorely tempted to just stay inside and hide from the weather and world alike. If you have more severe SAD symptoms, going out may seem unachievable, but if you want to keep the low moods and lethargy at bay, then you should do your best to resist these solitary tendencies.

man and woman hanging out in winter

Try not to give up on seeing people and doing things.

Much the same as light exercise, studies show that a leisurely walk in the great outdoors can improve your mood and well-being.

Just taking one moment every day to notice a detail in your natural surroundings, and asking yourself what feelings it elicits, can make you feel happier and more sociable, according to research from the University of British Columbia in Canada.

The American Psychological Association advise that you keep in touch with friends and family, go out with them, and speak to trusted people about what you’re experiencing. Enlisting someone else’s help in keeping you active, and helping you get out of your shell during the cold months, may make it easier to cope with the effects of SAD.

Advice regarding how best to cope with SAD from Johns Hopkins Medicine also includes finding a winter-appropriate hobby that will both keep you busy and give you pleasure, such as a DIY project or a winter sport.

Moreover, don’t forget that there is help available for people who experience SAD. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been proven to be effective in the treatment of this disorder, and a specialist will be able to recommend antidepressants if you find yourself struggling.

If you experience SAD, let us know what your strategy is for managing the symptoms and making the most of the holiday season.

Boost Concentration: Life Hack, 5 Ways To Improve Concentration

In the information overload age, being able to focus and keep your attention on the task at hand can be a struggle. We have compiled some concentration-boosting and distraction-fighting techniques to fire up your capacity to concentrate.
man typing at a computer

Concentrating can sometimes be a challenge, but steps can be taken to enhance your ability to concentrate.

On an average day, Americans are bombarded with an estimated 34 gigabytes of information and 100,500 words. Meanwhile, office workers are interrupted every 11 minutes, while it takes 25 minutes, on average, to get back to the task they were working on before the interruption. It is , therefore, o surprise that our ability to focus is withering due to these endless distractions.

Maintaining attention allows us to construct our internal world in such a way that the thoughts, motivations, and emotions that are the most relevant to our goals will have priority in our brains.

The ability to sustain attention begins at an early age and contributes to success throughout people’s lives. Several factors during childhood and adolescence can enhance or impair the development of skills that enable you to focus for extended periods.

Infants look to their parents for guidance on where to focus their attention, while preschoolers who can concentrate and persist on a task are 50 percent more likely to complete college.

Research has indicated that preschoolers and kindergartners who are farsighted often have a hard time paying attention, which could increase their risk of slipping behind in school.

In adolescents, binge drinking is thought to interrupt normal brain growth in the frontal brain areas that are linked to high-level thoughts, including organization and planning. Heavy alcohol use may, therefore, affect a teenager’s ability to perform in school and sports, and these effects could be long-lasting.

Regardless of upbringing or social and work-based distractions, there are some steps that you can take to harness your brain at its best and channel your focus to complete tasks. Here are Medical News Today‘s tactics to help you improve your concentration quickly and effectively.

1. Get regular ‘green time’

A dose of nature could be just what the doctor ordered when trying to improve your attention span and ability to concentrate.

office with plants

Add some greenery to your office to increase concentration levels in the workplace.

Research suggests that exposure to natural surroundings, including green spaces, may prove beneficial for children’s brain development.

In a study, children aged 4–5 to 7 years of age with more green space around their homes scored better in attention tests. These results underline the importance of expanding green areas in cities to support children’s health and brain development.

Increased concentration from green exposure does not stop during childhood. Research has demonstrated that glancing at greenery can also markedly boost concentration levels and productivity in college and the workplace.

Students were asked to conduct a mundane task and given a 40-second break midway through to view either a bare concrete roof or a flowering meadow green roof. Individuals who glanced at the meadow scene made considerably fewer errors and exhibited superior concentration levels on the remaining half of the task than those who observed the concrete scene.

Another study showed that enriching a bare office with plants increased the productivity of workers by 15 percent. The presence of greenery increased workplace satisfaction perceived air quality and reported levels of concentration.

The researcher’s analysis details that plants may be beneficial because a green office promotes employees’ work engagement by making them more cognitively, emotionally, and physically involved in their work.

You may not have the luxury of a rooftop garden or an office laden with plants, but spending time outside someplace green, or eating your lunch in the park each day, could make a significant difference to your concentration.

2. Take a break

If you are lucky enough to have high working memory capacity, then you should have no problem ignoring distractions and staying focused on tasks. But for the rest of us, tuning out background distractions can be challenging.

Evidence suggests that taking a break from the following distractions could enhance your ability to concentrate.

Email

group of people using devices

Take a vacation from email, cell phone notifications, and social media to boost concentration.

Controlling the times you log in to email — work or personal — and batching messages, among other strategies, could help to boost on-the-job productivity.

study found that people who read emails throughout the day switched screen twice as often and were in an ongoing state of high alert with a constant heart rate. When email was removed from these people for 5 days, their heart rate returned to a natural, variable one.

The authors concluded that taking an email vacation significantly decreases stress and improves concentration and focus.

Cell phone notifications

Whether you are alerted to text or an incoming call by an alarm, vibration, or trendy ringtone, a cell phone notification can distract you enough to impair your ability to concentrate on a task.

In fact, the distraction caused by a notification is just as off-putting as using your cell phone to make calls or send a text message, according to research. A team discovered that while notifications are short in duration, they tend to trigger task-irrelevant thoughts or mind wandering that damages task performance.

The team explained that task performance takes a hit because humans have a limited capacity for attention that needs to be split between tasks. The researchers also emphasized that just being aware of a missed text or call can have the same effect.

If you need to stay on track and focused, it might be worth either turning off your cell phone, setting it to silent, or putting it away somewhere that you cannot see it.

Social media

The curiosity of checking personal social media accounts can often be overwhelming, but research indicates that there are negative consequences when using social media during office hours.

Approximately 2.8 billion people worldwide use social media, and many of those use social media for personal purpose while at work. Using social media during working hours has been revealed to have an adverse effect on self-reported work performance and concentration, and the well-being of the organization.

Fighting the urge to use social media while you need to concentrate may help to improve your productivity and concentration.

Work breaks

Other research demonstrates how to take the best type of break to boost energy, motivation, and concentration. Researchers recommend taking:

  • a mid-morning break to replenish concentration
  • better breaks by doing something you enjoy, which should make your break more restful, provide better recovery, and help you to come back to worked focused
  • frequent short breaks to facilitate recovery

Taking breaks earlier in the day and doing preferred activities lead to better health, job satisfaction, and revival of energy, motivation, and concentration. Workers also experienced fewer headaches, eyestrain, and lower back pain after their break.

3. Rethink your environment

Our environment plays a significant role in how well we are able to concentrate. It is known that by decluttering your home or tidying your desk, your mind also feels more orderly, free, and able to think more clearly.

You can make changes to your environment so that it is favorable for sustaining concentration.

desk with plants and colorful books

Design your own work area to improve your productivity.

Design your own workspace. Whether you have full control over the design of your workspace or can embellish your desk with just a few personal items, having control over our work environment can help to improve productivity.

study compared people who completed a series of tasks in a bare and functional office space, an office decorated with plants and pictures, and an office in which the individual designed the space.

People who were in a space with plants and pictures were 17 percent more productive than those in bare office, while those who designed their own spaces were 32 percent more productive than the workers at a functional desk.

Listen to Baroque classical music. In a study of radiologist’s work lives, it was found that listening to Baroque classical music improved mood and job satisfaction and potentially improved diagnostic efficiency, accuracy, and productivity.

Play natural sounds. If Baroque music is not your thing, playing natural sounds could also benefit concentration. Researchers revealed that playing sounds from nature in the office, such as flowing water, could enhance cognitive abilities and optimize the ability to concentrate.

Inhale rosemary aroma. Research has suggested that exposure to rosemary aroma may improve speed and accuracy of cognitive performance.

4. Try brain training

Problem-solving exercises, brain training methods, and even video games could all have a positive, negative effect, or no effect at all on concentration, depending on which study you read.

person completing a crossword

Frequently doing crosswords could help to improve attention and concentration.

Recent research has indicated that people who often do word puzzles, such as crosswords, have better brain function later in life.

Researchers found direct relationships between how often people used word puzzles and the speed and accuracy of performance on tasks assessing reasoning, memory, and attention.

study has emphasized that it matters what type of brain training you are doing to improve memory and attention. Researchers compared two brain-training methods called “dual n-back” and “complex span.”

Participants who practiced dual n-back demonstrated a 30 percent improvement in their working memory — almost double the gains made by the complex span group.

Dual n-back is a memory sequence test wherein individuals have to remember a sequence of auditory and visual stimuli that are updated continuously.

Playing video games has been shown to cause changes in many regions of the brain. Researchers discovered that video game use altered the brain regions that are responsible for visuospatial skills and attention and made them work more efficiently.

5. Enhance your well-being

Physical activity, dietary choices, and weight are all factors that can contribute to how well you function and your concentration levels. For example, if you skip breakfast, it is unlikely that by lunchtime you will be able to perform tasks to the best of your ability due to hunger pangs.

Looking after your well-being, staying active, and eating concentration-boosting foods can all help toward improving concentration.

Concentration-enhancing foods

To increase your ability to concentrate, you might want to add some walnuts, avocados, and chocolate to your dietary repertoire.

avocados on a wooden board

Avocados may help to enhance cognitive measures, including memory and attention.

Walnuts may improve performance on tests for cognitive function, including those assessing information processing speed, memory, and concentration.

Avocados. Consuming one avocado every day may help improve cognitive function due to an upsurge in lutein levels in the eye and brain. Researchers uncovered that eating an avocado daily enhanced measures of cognitive skills, including processing speed, memory, and attention.

Chocolate — or specifically the cocoa bean — is rich in flavanols, which are compounds that have neuroprotective effects. Cocoa flavanols may help to improve cognitive processing speed, working memory, and attention when ingested for between 5 days and 3 months.

Exercise for concentration

Research has revealed that individuals who practice sport can perform better on cognitive tasks than those with bad physical health. When compared with a group who led a more sedentary lifestyle, the group who were in good physical condition performed better on tasks testing sustained attention.

study of older adults also specified that exercise improved brain function. All participants who exercised for between 75 minutes and 225 minutes per week showed elevated attention levels and an increased ability to focus.

Yoga may significantly improve energy levels and brain function. Investigators found that practicing Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation for 25 minutes per day boosted the regions of the brain associated with goal-directed behavior and allowed participants to focus more easily.

Check your weight

Research unearthed a connection between weight loss and improved memory and concentration.

Researchers say that factors such as high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and type 2 diabetes, which often result from obesity, might impair the brain. They suggest that as people get back to a healthy weight and the associated problems disappear, their cognitive issues will vanish, too.

If you have tried all the above and you are still wrestling with your inability to concentrate, grab yourself a large coffee. Caffeine has been shown to affect the alerting and executive control networks of the brain and has clear beneficial effects on concentration and attention.

Resistance Training May Boost Seniors’ Psychological Well-Being

Resistance training may benefit some aspects of psychological well-being in older adults, according to new research from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.
older woman lifting weights

Muscle-strengthening activities could boost psychological well-being among seniors.

The researchers — who reported their findings in the journal Quality of Life Research — came to this conclusion after studying the effect of 9 months of resistance training on psychological functioning in a group of not very active older adults.

Physically active older people tend to live longer and have lower rates of many non-communicable diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart and circulation diseases, and several types of cancer, say the World Health Organization (WHO). Physically active seniors also have higher levels of fitness and a healthier body composition.

To this end, the WHO recommends that healthy people aged 65 and over do at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic physical activity, in bouts of at least 10 minutes at a time. They should also, on 2 or more days each week, engage in muscle-strengthening, or resistance training, that involves the major muscle groups.

The new study investigated the effect of 9 months of frequent resistance training — that is, muscle-strengthening exercises that use weights and resistance bands — on psychological as opposed to physical well-being in this age group.

Muscle training and psychological health

“The importance of resistance training for the muscular strength and physical functioning in older adults is well-known,” explains lead study author and doctoral student Tiia Kekäläinen, “but the links to psychological functioning have been studied less.”

The team recruited 106 healthy people aged between 65 and 75 whose level of aerobic physical activity fell below that recommended by the WHO. None of them had received training in muscle-strengthening before.

They randomly assigned the participants to one of four groups: three resistance training groups and a non-training group (the controls). All the training groups underwent familiarization and practice in resistance training twice per week for 3 months.

After the familiarization period, the three training groups continued with progressive resistance training for another 6 months. One group practised this once per week, another twice each week, and the third, three times every week.

The participants completed assessments of psychological functioning three times over the 9-month study: at baseline (month 0), after completion of 3 months of familiarization in resistance training (month 3), and at the end of 6 months of progressive resistance training (month 9).

The subjects also gave information about their levels of aerobic physical activity at these times and underwent assessments of physical strength.

The assessments of psychological functioning included measures of quality of life (using a WHO questionnaire); sense of coherence (using an Antonovsky scale); and symptoms of depression(using a Beck depression inventory).

Health as ‘more than absence of disease’

The quality of life measure that the team used examines how individuals perceive their position in life relative to their expectations, goals, concerns, and standards within the context of their culture and values system.

It captures four quality of life domains: physical, psychological, social, and environmental. “Of these domains,” note the researchers, “especially the physical domain tends to decrease with age.”

Sense of coherence is a concept that was originally proposed by the sociologist Aaron Antonovsky several decades ago. His salutogenesis theory defines health as being more than just the absence of disease. It proposes that health is a position on a spectrum that has “ease” at one end and “dis-ease” at the other.

According to Antonovsky, sense of coherence is a “life orientation” that reflects how people see themselves able to make their lives “meaningful, manageable, and comprehensible.”

The researchers behind the new study suggest that sense of coherence might, therefore “be seen as a health resource because it reveals how people perceive life and use their resources to cope with stressors.”

Improvements in psychological functioning

The results of the study showed that at month 3, environmental quality of life improved in the resistance training groups compared with the control (non-training) group.

The environmental domain in the quality of life questionnaire seeks to measure how satisfied people are with their environment, physical safety, and the ease with which they can “access different services,” such as “leisure activities, health services, and public transport.”

At the end of the 3 months of resistance training, there was also a slight improvement in sense of coherence in the training groups compared with the controls. However, this was not statistically significant.

What was significant was the improvement in sense of coherence after 9 months of resistance training, although this was only seen in the group that trained twice per week.

The team suggests that perhaps a sense of coherence takes longer to develop and for resistance training to have an effect in this domain it needs to be longer than 3 months.

The results suggest that older adults’ ability to manage their environment and life could be improved by resistance training.”

Tiia Kekäläinen

The researchers propose that future studies should examine whether these changes remain over a longer period. They should also look at the extent to which frequency of training — as opposed to continuity — has the biggest effect.

Why 20 Minutes of Intense Exercise Can Boost Memory

A new study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience shows that vigorous exercise for a short period of time can boost the so-called interference memory. The research also points to a potential mechanism that may explain the findings.

brain and weights

Physical training also ‘trains’ your brain, new research shows.

Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, reveal what intense, 20-minute bouts of exercise can do for our memory.

The lead author of the new research is Jennifer Heisz, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University.

Heisz and her colleagues show that 20-minute daily sessions of interval training for 6 weeks dramatically improves performance in a so-called high-interference memory task.

The interference memory theory refers to the way in which information that we already know and have memorized may interfere with our ability to learn new material.

Good interference memory means that old knowledge works seamlessly with new information, enabling us, for example, to distinguish a new car from our old one, even if they are the same brand and model.

Intense exercise boosts interference memory

Heisz and her team recruited 95 young adult participants for their study. The participants engaged in one of the following three scenarios for a duration of 6 weeks: physical training plus cognitive training, physical training only, or no training at all.

The physical exercise sessions consisted of 20 daily minutes of interval training.

Participants were also asked to take part in a high-interference memory task, wherein they tried to recognize pairs of matching faces from an array of very similar images.

The team also measured their levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), as well as insulin-like growth factor-1, both before and after the interventions. BDNF promotes the survival, growth, and maintenance of neurons.

The researchers found that the group who had engaged in an intense physical activity performed much better at the high-interference memory task and had higher levels of BDNF compared with the control group.

Additionally, the combined training group had similar performance levels with the exercise-only group.

Findings particularly important for seniors

“These findings are especially important, as memory benefits were found from a relatively short intervention,” the authors emphasize.

“Improvements in this type of memory from exercise,” explains Heisz, “might help to explain the previously established link between aerobic exercise and better academic performance.”

The study also hints at a potential mechanism that may explain how exercise and brain training may work together to improve cognition.

“Taken together, the results suggest that the potential for synergistic effects of combining exercise and cognitive training may depend on individual differences in the availability of neurotrophic factors induced by exercise,” the authors conclude.

Heisz says that the findings may bring good news for older adults, in particular, saying, “At the other end of our lifespan, as we reach our senior years, we might expect to see even greater benefits in individuals with memory impairment brought on by conditions such as dementia.”

“One hypothesis is that we will see greater benefits for older adults given that this type of memory declines with age,” explains Heisz, whose team have already started to investigate this hypothesis.

“However,” she notes, “the availability of neurotrophic factors also declines with age and this may mean that we do not get the synergistic effects.”