As frigid temperatures rolled across much of the United States recently, causing health complications and as many as 23 deaths, many also reported feeling trapped indoors. Cabin fever may be on the rise this time of year, marked by feelings of restlessness, irritability, trouble concentrating and low motivation.

For some, wintertime mood changes may be significant enough to meet criteria for seasonal affective disorder, a type of major depressive disorder that has a recurring seasonal pattern. For those battling seasonal affective disorders, psychotherapy, medications and light therapy can improve symptoms.

For others, mood changes may be less severe but still interfere with one’s enjoyment of life and productivity. One solution aimed at improving low winter mood is to simply get moving. The good news is you can do that indoors.

As health professionals, we study the influence of health behaviors such as physical activity on physical and mental health. Our research teams have shown that adults who are more active and who sit less are less likely to develop obesity and other risk factors for heart disease.  

Despite the consistent benefits of activity, almost one in five adults cite dislike of exercise and lack of time as barriers to physical activity participation. Only one-third of U.S. adults are meeting the current activity guidelines.  

If preventing obesity and its complications isn’t enough to jolt adults from their seats, maybe improved brain health will spark a change. The American College of Sports Medicine’s Exercise as Medicine campaign promotes activity as beneficial for both physical and mental health.

Regular physical activity, defined as three to five times a week for 30 minutes or more, can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Higher levels of activity are related to better brain health, possibly warding off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in aging populations.

Physical activity can boost one’s mood through both biological pathways, such as the release of brain chemicals that enhance sense of well-being, as well as through psychological pathways, such as gaining confidence and expanding coping strategies.

Donna (not her real name) was recently widowed when we began working together, and reports she was struggling with feelings of sadness and anxiety due to the death of her husband of 40 years. He had been the patriarch of the family, and in his absence, Donna reported she was overwhelmed with her new responsibilities.

In addition to weekly psychotherapy, Donna began walking for 30 minutes a day. Within a few weeks, she reported that getting out to walk in her neighborhood had reconnected her with neighbors, boosted her energy levels, and improved her sense of self-efficacy.

To meet current activity guidelines, creativity is a recipe for success. The goal for most adults is 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate physical activity per week with muscle-strengthening activities twice a week.

For someone tackling physical activity for the first time, this amount of time may sound intimidating, but there are many ways to meet these guidelines indoors. Dancing to music, briskly walking around the house (even while talking on the phone), muscle strengthening by lifting cans of foods or doing squats against a wall or onto a chair are simple ways stay active.  Weather permitting, leaving home to walk around a mall with a friend is a great way to be social and to meet activity goals.   

As working parents who value the benefits of activity, we each intend to model those behaviors for our children. So we involve our own children by ice skating as a family and actively commuting via walking. When temperatures plunge well below 0 as they did recently, we build obstacle courses and play active indoor games as a family. 

To be sure, physical activity is not a cure-all. It’s all too common for people to wait until they feel better and perhaps until the weather is more accommodating to exercise. That is not a healthy choice. Whatever the weather, indoors or out, the most successful and sustainable activity programs are incorporated into everyday activities at home and at work. Taking action by getting moving can lead to a better quality of life.


  • Emily Lattie and Mercedes Carnethon

    Emily G. Lattie, Ph.D and Mercedes Carnethon, Ph.D.

    Emily G. Lattie, PhD is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Mercedes Carnethon, Ph.D. is the Mary Harris Thompson Professor of Preventive Medicine and Chief of the Division of Epidemiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.  Both are Public Voices Fellows through The OpEd Project.