4 Ways to Make the Most of Darker, Shorter Days
If you're feeling crummy about this week's shift away from Daylight Saving Time, here are a few reasons to look at the bright side.
Everyone knows that the fall time change can put a damper on mood and energy levels, especially if you spend most of your now-shortened daylight hours indoors. And it's not hard to imagine how earlier sunsets and colder temperatures can translate to less time spent outdoors—and more time at home on the couch.
But it doesn't have to be that way, say health experts. In fact, the November shift from Daylight Saving to Standard Time can be an opportunity to reset your schedule and priorities when it comes to health and well-being. Here are four ways you can make this season's shorter days work for you rather than against you.
Finally fix your sleep schedule
Millions of Americans don't currently get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep at night, and many of us stay up later than we should—doing work, watching television, or tossing and turning in bed. But with the sun setting an hour earlier, it may feel natural to start your evening routine a bit earlier as well.
“You may find it's easier to wind down and go to bed a little bit earlier,” says Kenneth P. Wright Jr., PhD, professor of integrative physiology and director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder. “If you haven't been getting enough sleep and you can take this opportunity to get an extra hour or 30 minutes or so, that's going to be an immediate benefit to your health.”
Research shows that there are fewer heart attacks on the Monday following the fall shift from Daylight Saving Time compared to other Mondays throughout the year, and experts think that extra hour of sleep may play a role. “Try to carry that extra hour with you and be consistent about it, rather than falling back into your old habits,” Wright says.
Use it as a reason to leave the office for lunch
Even for the busiest people, short breaks during the workday have been shown to reduce fatigue and improve productivity—especially if they involve heading outdoors and getting some exercise. Now, you have another excuse to do just that.
“Going outside in the middle of the day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes, can help get you some of that mood-boosting sunlight you may be missing if you go to work before the sun rises and you leave work after it sets,” Wright says. Sitting in front of a window may also be helpful, he says, but going for a walk will likely give you more energy heading into your afternoon.
Also, resist the urge to throw on your sunglasses every time you step outside, says Angelos Halaris, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Loyola University, since they can block sunlight’s feel-good effects on the brain. (You should still wear them if you're spending considerable time outdoors, of course.)
Embrace a new fitness challenge
Despite the earlier sunsets, fall is still an excellent time to try a new fitness routine or step up your exercise habits; after all, outdoor activities like running and hiking can be much less grueling in cooler temperatures. (Just be sure to take precautions if you're outdoors in the dark, like wearing weather-appropriate and reflective gear.)
Committing to 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week is good for your heart and your overall health. It also releases endorphins that can boost mood and energy levels, says Wright, and it can help you sleep better at night. Plus, if you adopt a new habit now, it may help you get through the indulgent holiday season without gaining that dreaded winter weight.
Talk to a professional if you’re feeling down
If you’ve tried all of the above and you’re still not feeling like your normal happy or energetic self, a doctor or mental-health counselor may be able to help. He or she may recommend light therapy, which involves sitting in front of a special lamp or light box for 30 or so minutes a day to reduce the effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
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To prevent future episodes of SAD, however, cognitive behavioral therapy (also known as CBT or talk therapy) may work better in the long run. In a 2015 University of Vermont study, CBT was more effective at preventing relapses in future winters compared to light therapy.
In their CBT sessions, patients were taught to challenge negative thoughts about dark winter months and to resist harmful behaviors like social isolation. They could then refer back to those strategies whenever they needed, say the study authors, and didn't have to commit to daily treatments (as they would with a light box), which can be difficult to maintain.