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Time to Exercise Those Seasonal MS Blues Away

The fall came fast to Seattle this month. I’ve enjoyed all the memes describing the Pacific Northwest “false fall,” which typically lasts about a week in September before a second burst of radiant summer kicks in through the end of October.

But this year, the fall came before the equinox, it’s still here, and it’s not budging. Yes, in fact, there will be snow in the mountains this weekend.

When the shorter, gloomier days descend, I admit to taking fewer walks. I’m not sure why. For someone who likes all-season camping, I’m not particularly good about walking in the rain. I even have rain gear, so I have no excuse not to!

We need to exercise, whatever that looks like for us

But I need to. We, members of this MS club, all need to exercise (however that looks like for each of us), and not just for cardiovascular health, strength, mobility or pain management.

We need to exercise to overcome sleep problems, mood disorders, and—especially now—seasonal depression.

Exercise means better sleep

Continues to prove out the benefits of exercise to achieve better sleep.

Aerobic exercise can help improve insomnia in older adults.1

Research shows that people who exercise regularly rarely suffer from sleep problems.2 The National Sleep Foundation asserts, “As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can dramatically improve the quality of your nighttime sleep, especially when done on a regular basis.”3

Better, deeper sleep

Biologically speaking, exercise helps the body generate more of a substance called adenosine, which increases body temperature during the day and improves circadian rhythm regulation, leading to the likelihood for better, deeper sleep at night.4

Finally, research published in Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders last summer concluded that exercising helped to alleviate sleep complaints in subjects with MS, as well as complaints of depressive symptoms.5

Exercise also means better mood

Any illness that launches a shift or swing in mood—including depression—is considered a mood disorder.6

They’re actually common in people with MS. After all, dealing with its symptoms and setbacks can certainly dampen one’s spirit, attitude, and motivation.

A core symptom of MS?

But depression also appears to be biologically linked to MS. Last spring, Dr. Anthony Feinstein, MD PhD told Medscape that brain imaging data indicate that “depression can be viewed as a core symptom of MS.”7

Dr. George Jelinek, MBBS MD also shared in MD Magazine that “depression appears to accelerate the disease process [with MS] …It is thus very important for people with MS to be proactive about preventing and managing depression.”8

Exercise can reduce depressive symptoms

Jelinek’s team confirmed that certain modifiable lifestyle factors—such as exercise—can prevent or reduce depressive symptoms in people with MS, stating that “people with MS who exercise regularly have better quality of life and favorable depression scores.”9

It’s important to know that at least half of those with MS will experience depression at least once in their lives. Meanwhile, suicide remains a major cause of death for people with MS.10

Exercise helps. Some research suggests that mild exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medication and psychotherapy for relieving mild to moderate depression.11

Exercise can keep away the SAD

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) describes a hybrid sleep-mood disorder that many experience following the arrival of darker, shorter days in fall and winter.

With SAD (or seasonal depression), sleep habits change. We sleep longer or suffer insomnia. We might get adequate sleep, yet face low energy and periods of daytime lassitude.

Moods can also shift

Moods can also shift, often as the result of poor sleep. But sometimes it’s a direct response to lower sunlight exposure. It’s no surprise that lack of vitamin D—most easily obtained through natural light exposure—is one cause.

Also, negative changes in diet and activity levels can worsen SAD. We might crave more sweets, gain weight, or feel hungrier overall. We might also—yours truly included—avoid getting regular exercise.

How exercise improves SAD

While a recent study in Frontiers of Psychiatry didn’t specifically address SAD, it did find that regular exercise “impacted positively” on sleep, depression, paresthesia, fatigue, and cognitive performance—which could easily describe a person living with both MS and SAD.12

Staving off SAD

Mild, regular exercise (especially outside, and in the morning) can definitely stave off SAD. Doing so increases your exposure to vitamin D, supporting mood regulation; it bolsters your circadian rhythms, stabilizing your sleep patterns; and it releases endorphins, elevating mood.

If you notice you’re low on energy, feeling moody, and sleep turns wonky during the fall and winter, your solution (and mine, because this describes me!) might be as simple as taking a short walk every morning. Who’s with me?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Reid KJ, Baron KG, Lu B, Naylor E, Wolfe L, Zee PC. Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia. Sleep Med. 2010;11(9):934–940. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2010.04.014
  2. O’Brien, S. The Impact of Exercise on Sleep. Clinical Advisor. April 5, 2019.
  3. National Sleep Foundation. A good workout can help you get great shut-eye. Accessed November 7, 2019.
  4. National Sleep Foundation. Physical activity may help you snooze more soundly. Accessed November 7, 2019.
  5. Sadeghi Bahmani D. et al. Compared to an active control condition, in persons with multiple sclerosis two different types of exercise training improved sleep and depression, but not fatigue, paresthesia, and intolerance of uncertainty. Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders. 2019 Jul 29;36:101356. doi: 10.1016/j.msard.2019.07.032.
  6. Mental Health America. What Are Mood Disorders? Accessed November 7, 2019.
  7. Melville N. Depression Called a ‘Core Symptom’ of MS. Medscape. June 14, 2019. Accessed November 7, 2019.
  8. Connor Roche G. Multiple Sclerosis-Related Depression Influenced by Modifiable Lifestyle Choices. MD Magazine. December 7, 2018. Accessed November 7, 2019.
  9. Taylor KL, Simpson S Jr, Jelinek GA, et al. Longitudinal Associations of Modifiable Lifestyle Factors With Positive Depression-Screen Over 2.5-Years in an International Cohort of People Living With Multiple Sclerosis. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:526. Published 2018 Oct 30. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00526
  10. Scalfari A, Knappertz V, Cutter G, Goodin DS, Ashton R, Ebers GC. Mortality in patients with multiple sclerosis. Neurology. 2013;81(2):184–192. doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e31829a3388
  11. Knapen J. Exercise therapy improves both mental and physical health in patients with major depression. Disability and Rehabilitation. 2015;37(16):1490-5. doi: 10.3109/09638288.2014.972579.
  12. Sadeghi Bahmani D, Kesselring J, Papadimitriou M, et al. In Patients With Multiple Sclerosis, Both Objective and Subjective Sleep, Depression, Fatigue, and Paresthesia Improved After 3 Weeks of Regular Exercise. Front Psychiatry. 2019;10:265. Published 2019 May 3. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00265