Park Life: It'll be a long, SAD winter

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IT'S FUNNY how a small, informal gang can develop without anyone making a conscious choice to join. For the past few Saturday mornings - ever since the clocks went back and the weather turned nasty - I have found myself nodding hello to five or six regulars in the same place at the same time on the touchline of our sons' Under Eights football game. The fair-weather friends of late summer are long gone: now it's down to the hard core - those whose boys simply have to play, whatever the conditions.

The worse the weather gets, the closer we bunch together, and the louder we shout to keep ourselves warm. A couple of weeks ago, the boys had their best game of the season on a day when, a mile or so away, Chelsea had their top-of-the-table clash with Aston Villa postponed. Well, you wouldn't really expect 22 pampered millionaires to be as tough as a bunch of seven-year-olds playing for fun, would you?

I found myself taking to Richard, one of the Dads gang - although both of us had to shout to make ourselves understood above the roaring gale. "Got to be the best way to start the weekend," he said, shivering under a large umbrella. I grunted my assent, adding rather lamely: "I don't know what we'd do if Darcy couldn't play - he'd drive us mad by lunchtime if he couldn't get rid of all that energy."

"I'm not talking about the boys," Richard set me straight. "I was talking about me - if I didn't get out here, I'd probably end up in front of the telly all weekend."

The penny dropped a few days later: what Richard was talking about, although he didn't refer to it directly, was the winter blues, more portentously known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition which afflicts people deprived of sunlight. Perhaps we are all its victims in Britain, with our short winter days - after all, is there anyone out there who looks forward to November? But it seems to me that those who spend much of the summer outside suffer the worst effects of SAD - after all, dedicated couch-potatoes stay in training for thewinter months all year round.

We know instinctively that sunlight is good for us, despite the current skin cancer scares. When our children are small, we make a point of taking them outside every day, although we tend to refer to this ritual, puzzlingly, as fresh air. This is surely why, when we imagine pre-Industrial Revolution Britain, jolly, red-faced squires and jolly, red-faced peasants spring to mind - people who hunted or worked the land in all seasons, before they were forced into factories, mines or offices.

I had never really believed in SAD until, one autumn, I decided to carry on cycling into work every day, whatever the weather - a journey that took a good 45 minutes. While everyone else around became gradually more morose as the season closed in, my mood remained remarkably even, and this despite the long and depressing cycle home in the park.

So why is it that every winter takes us by surprise? This year was typical. I gradually found myself feeling low, sluggish and stressed; I snapped at the children and wasn't able to sleep with any consistency. My working circumstances had not changed, I wasn't ill, and I was still taking regular exercise, so what was wrong? Once Richard had tipped me off, I remembered - of course, it's SAD time again. Social life had moved inside for the season, and even exercise had transferred to the gym or the squash court, give or take the odd game of football.

A couple of mornings later, I put on several layers of tracksuits and made my way to the local running track, empty as it always is at this time of the year. I slogged round and round for an hour or so, gradually peeling off layers, gradually feeling lighter-headed in the weak light of a wan winter sun. I bounced through the rest of the day, and slept like a baby all night long for the first time in weeks.