University of Iowa wellness experts weigh in on how to combat seasonal sadness.
Wednesday, February 1, 2023

When the days are short and the air is cold, finding the motivation and energy to get up and about can be difficult. Out-of-sync circadian rhythms can make even mundane activities challenging. “Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation,” Sinclair Lewis once wrote.

While the winter blues are not uncommon, there are many simple ways to overcome them, says Carla Melby-Oetken, a health coach with University of Iowa liveWELL.

Visit Mental Health at Iowa to connect with campus resources and find programming.



“Every small step you take counts,” she says. “My best tips are to find ways to be active, stimulate your senses, connect with others, and do activities you enjoy. Crank up the music at home and dance in your kitchen. Do an online yoga class. Or bundle up—layers really help—and get outside.”

Here are 10 tips to help elevate your mood in the final stretch of winter:

1. Keep active. Consider joining an intramural sport or trying out a group fitness class, from cardio-inspired dance classes to calming, meditative yoga classes, at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, frequently recognized among the best university recreational facilities in the country. UI Recreational Services also manages the Field House, Fitness East, and the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex. You can rent snowshoes or cross-country skis through its Outdoor Rental Center.


People participate in bodycombat fitness at the CRWC

2. Get outside. A recent study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports showed that people who walked 30 minutes at lunchtime three times a week reported a boost in their mood and feeling more relaxed. “Getting out the door is the hard part,” Melby-Oetken says. “Give yourself a pat on the back for just accomplishing that first step, then stimulate your brain by exploring nature.” For inspiration, check out this list of walking routes on or near campus. About 15 miles north of campus, the university-managed Macbride Nature Recreation Area offers more than 6 miles of trails for hiking or cross-country skiing.

3. Eat well. Various studies have shown benefits to mood from increased fruit and vegetable consumption and from diets that include fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (think salmon, sardines, and tuna). Avoid sugary and processed foods. Student Wellness offers free nutrition consultations to UI students, as well as a free, four-week workshop on intuitive eating.

4. Sleep well. Sleep and mood are closely connected. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep each day—and stick to a schedule. For best results, put away electronics before you go to bed. Need help? Students can learn good sleep strategies through Refresh, a Student Wellness program. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, make an appointment with the sleep disorders clinic at UI Hospitals & Clinics.

5. Shine a light. One of the most effective ways to combat seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is light therapy. Bronwyn Threlkeld-Wiegand, director of the UI Employee Assistance Program, recommends using a light box daily during daylight saving time and immediately upon waking. Students can check out light boxes for free from Student Wellness. Another good option is going for a brisk walk while the sun is up, maybe after breakfast or lunch, and sitting close to windows.


Light therapy

6. See friends and family. Get a coffee date on the calendar. Invite your besties over for dinner or a game night. “Isolation does not help the winter blues,” says Michael Fletcher, director of University Counseling Service. “See friends and family and socialize as appropriate.”

7. Talk it out. “Talk therapy is critical, as well as joining a support group,” Fletcher adds. University Counseling Service offers individual therapy, as well as a variety of support groups for students. For students who need immediate support, the UI Support and Crisis Line is available 24/7 via phone, text, or online chat. The Employee Assistance Program offers free, short-term counseling to faculty, staff, postdocs, medical residents, and their families.

8. Start a new hobby. Pick up that instrument you always wanted to try. Learn a new language. Start a puzzle. Join a bowling league. “Maybe you have a creative side that you haven’t been using,” Melby-Oetken says. “Make time for a hobby you enjoy—or take a class and learn a new one.”

9. Plan things to look forward to. Numerous studies suggest that anticipating something can be nearly as pleasurable as experiencing it. Visit and purchase a ticket to see the Hawkeyes in action. Discover the university’s world-class collection at the new Stanley Museum of Art. Schedule a date to explore that state park you’ve never been to.


The Iowa women's basketball team huddles during pregame warmups at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

10. Volunteer. Research published in 2020 in the Journal of Happiness Studies suggests that those who volunteer experience a boost to their mental health, are more satisfied with their lives, and report better overall health. The UI Center for Advancement maintains a list of volunteer opportunities on campus, from mentoring students to serving as a museum docent. Every year, UI Hospitals & Clinics is supported by more than 1,300 volunteers who donate their time and talents to improve the experience of patients and their families.

Resolve to focus on your wellness in 2023. UI liveWELL offers free health coaching for faculty and staff—learn to make simple and sustainable changes, overcome obstacles, and create strategies to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The university also provides Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, an evidence-based program for managing stress, which is offered at no cost to eligible faculty and staff. Student Wellness benefits include free wellness coaching, an online assessment tool that shares personalized wellness tips, and the Koru Mindfulness program. In addition, UI employees who take the Personal Health Assessment will receive tailored feedback and recommendations for health improvement, as well as information on campus and community resources.

If the winter blues feel unmanageable—or you think you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs when the seasons change—ask for help. Consult your health care provider to see what might be most helpful. For additional information or resources, contact the Employee Assistance Program or University Counseling Service.