This week we’ll be celebrating cardio and some of it’s lesser known but largely beneficial effects. Don’t get me wrong, strength training is important. Doing weights has a spectrum of benefits including improved insulin balance, growth hormone release and like all exercise it boosts your metabolism. It just seems like lately there’s been a bit of a stand off between weight training and cardio and a growing amount of people who sit firmly in one camp doing either or. Not only that, there are a lot of people out there who are vocal about avoiding cardiovascular exercise entirely, which would be a big mistake. So, as I am writing this and it is 3:45pm and DARK OUTSIDE, I’m going to start with cardio’s amazing effects on combating SAD - the dreaded Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Most people know SAD to be a deficiency of vitamin D but it goes deeper than that. To really understand SAD, we first need to understand a little about melatonin.
Melatonin is a hormone and powerful antioxidant that is best known for it’s involvement in the sleep wake cycle. It affects your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep and also your sleep quality. Not only that, but it perks up the libido, can help with immunity and also indirectly influences your body composition through it’s relationship with growth hormone.
Melatonin is the player that helps turn on the body's restorative processes that occurs whilst asleep. It does this by helping trigger an essential dip in body temperature that is crucial for the release of growth hormone (note to self: turn down the heating in the bedroom for better sleep). Once the body has cooled, growth hormone is released and starts doing it’s thing - it repairs and rebuilds bone, skin, muscle and tissues. It can also help to lower cortisol protecting us from the harmful affects of chronic stress.
Melatonin & Mood
Melatonin is a derivative of serotonin, and when melatonin goes up, serotonin goes down. In the dark winters, melatonin levels are known to rise due to the lack of sun exposure. This causes a correlative drop in serotonin, which is one of the main causes of seasonal depression. Low serotonin can also cause weight gain and strong cravings for crisps, bread, sugar, cookies…anything comforting and high in carbohydrates, which cause serotonin levels to spike. The problem with these short terms fixes is that although they can cause a temporary boost in mood because of the surge in serotonin, they’ll also wreak havoc with blood sugar, metabolism and as soon as that surge wears off, our mood.
SAD can range in severity and while it’s important to get it properly diagnosed by a doctor if you’re concerned, the good news is that we all have access to one of the most important and effective treatments available.
One of the best ways to improve the mood based symptoms of SAD is through cardiovascular exercise. Cardio helps boost serotonin and dopamine - neurotransmitters that are involved in feelings of happiness, motivation, memory, reward and libido. In terms of regulating our mood hormones, cardio-based exercise for 30 minutes or more has been shown to be the most beneficial. And, if you want to take it a bit further, a 60-minute session of cardiovascular exercise has been shown to be equivalent to 2.5 hours of light therapy (the recommended treatment for light therapy with SAD is 20 minutes per day). It can also help indirectly due to it’s normalising effect on insulin, which relieves stress.
If you want to create one new habit this January and reap the benefits of improved sleep, better moods and stress relief, think about introducing a couple sessions of pure cardio into your fitness routine.