Taking Advantage of the Sunshine

Cute woman in the park with dandelions

The weather has finally started to heat up and I’ve really enjoyed being able to get outside and enjoy walks with Lisa and occasional games with my kids and grandkids. All that time outside has reminded me of the major benefits of time in the sun, but it’s also given me pause to think about some of the harms that can come with it. I want to help you get the most out of the sunshine this spring and summer, but also sound some cautionary sun safety reminders so you don’t damage your health in the long run.

Watch: 3 Simple Summer Safety Tips

The Benefits of Time in the Sun
Our ancestors spent most of their time outside so it should come as no surprise that our health and mood are often closely tied to how much time we get outdoors. You’ve probably experienced the major boost in how you feel when you get away from the computer screen to spend some time in the outdoors. While some of that effect probably has to do with the peace of natural settings and the ability to get away from stressful modern distractions, a lot of it also has to do with the sun. That’s because sunlight governs a variety of processes in our body that play a direct role in our health. Here are a few examples.

Vitamin D: The sun’s rays are a key ingredient in the body’s production of vitamin D. While UV from the sun can be harmful in high doses, we need at least some to make the vitamin D that our body needs to stay healthy. Vitamin D plays a role in the health of our bones, but a lot of new research is showing that it might also be important for our heart health, cancer risk, and diabetes risk just to name a few.

Learn More: The Importance of Vitamin D

Sleep Habits: Chances are good that you don’t sleep as well as you’d like. From bright city lights to phone and tablet screens to late night movies, there are a lot of factors that can upset our sleep schedule. But by far the most important factor in helping our body figure out when to sleep is exposure to the sun. Getting outside during the sunny times of day helps your body calibrate when to be awake and when to go to sleep. (Watch to see the connection between more sleep and heightened productivity.)

Mental Health: Sunlight is directly linked to our mood in ways we still don’t fully understand. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), for example, is a direct result of lack of sunlight during the winter months. Lower levels of sunlight exposure can also act as a risk factor for depression and may affect how your brain processes information.

Quiz: Test Your Sun Smarts

The Harms of Time in the Sun
Unfortunately, time in the sun isn’t completely harmless. The UV rays present in sunlight can cause skin cancer and have been linked to eye problems like cataracts. UV radiation carries a huge amount of energy, which is why it’s so helpful in making vitamin D. But that energy can also damage DNA and lead to cancer in some cases. Melanoma is the most common form of cancer caused by exposure to the sun’s rays and is often deadly in those unfortunate enough to be diagnosed in the late stages. Our eyes are also vulnerable because those high energy rays can damage the cells and proteins that keep the structures of our eyes healthy. In addition to cancer, the sun’s rays can cause the lens of our eye to become cloudy, which can slowly lead to blindness. This condition is called cataracts and is the leading cause of blindness in the US and worldwide.

Finding the Right Balance
I know it’s scary to hear about the horrible things that can happen with too much sun exposure, but I tell you those risks only to make sure you take the right precautions in enjoying the outdoors. There are major benefits to be had from spending time in the sun and the key is finding the right balance between getting the sunlight you need without exposing yourself to unnecessary risk. Here are a few words of advice that can help you enjoy the sun, but avoid the risks that come with too much UV exposure.

  • Use sunscreen when you’re in the outdoors. I recommend something that has an SPF of 30 or above. Anything below that isn’t protecting you sufficiently. If you’re going to be playing sports or getting into the water, make sure you have a sunscreen that’s sweat and water resistant. Finally, make sure you’re reapplying every two hours or right after you finish swimming. (Check out this guide to buying sunscreen.)
  • Get a good pair of sunglasses. Sunglasses come in all different colors, shapes and sizes. Don’t let this confuse you. There are generally two things that matter most: UV protection and eye coverage. Make sure the glasses filter out UVA and UVB light and that they cover your full field of vision (up and down as well as on the sides). If your glasses have these two things, you’ll be protecting your eyes.
  • Get your sun in short spurts. The amount of sun you need to get your daily vitamin D dose will vary based on your skin color. People with fair skin only need a few minutes of unprotected time in the sun to get what they need. People with darker skin will need more exposure, but still shouldn’t spend long periods of unprotected time in the sun. Going to grab a quick bite to eat without sunscreen is fine, but you should put on sunscreen if you’re going to be in the sun for more than five to 10 minutes.<

So what are you waiting for? Get outside and enjoy the sunshine! As long as you take the proper precautions, you should be able to reap all of the health benefits while avoiding the possible dangers.