Most of us feel happier in the summer. But did you realise that sunshine could also help you get in shape, boost your heart health and lower your cancer risk?
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1. It helps you start the day better
Being woken up gradually by the sun’s natural light switches off melatonin, the hormone that stimulates sleep. This improves your energy and mood, meaning you’re less likely to experience that groggy, half-asleep feeling you get during the dark mornings of winter months.
2. You’re also more likely to exercise
Longer days and balmy weather mean that exercising outdoors is far more pleasant. ‘Research shows that exercising outside can burn up to 30% more kilojoules than doing the same workout indoors,’ says Janey Holliday, founder of an outdoor fitness company. Plus,studies show that people who exercise in the morning are 75% more likely to still be exercising a year later. Time to ditch the weekend lie-in!
3. It relieves aches and pains
Being out in the sun helps to warm the body’s muscles and eases stiffness, reducing the pain caused by inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. Doctors have found that patients who recovered from surgery in sunny rooms took significantly fewer painkillers than those in darker ones. It’s thought sunlight improves mood and lessens the perception of pain.
4. It reduces heart-disease risk
People in the UK are more likely to die from heart disease in winter than in summer. Why? In hot weather, your blood vessels tend to widen to keep you cool, which reduces blood pressure. A lack of the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D (actually a hormone), can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes — particularly among individuals with high blood pressure. People with low blood levels of vitamin D had twice the risk of a heart attack within five years compared to those with higher levels.
5. It’s good for your teeth
In a study of 7 000 people, those with the highest amount of vitamin D in their blood had the lowest amount of inflammation, which is probably due to the vitamin’s anti-inflammatory effects.
6. It reduces depression
Sunshine boosts levels of the body’s happy hormone, serotonin, lifting your mood. Studies show that regular sunlight can stave off depression. This also explains why light therapy is such an effective treatment for SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) sufferers.
7. It’s easier to lose weight
The news gets better. Serotonin can also act as a natural appetite suppressant for some people — particularly if they crave comfort foods. Many people tend to eat less in hot weather because they opt for salads and light proteins, like fish and chicken, rather than stodgy winter fare, like pies and roasts.
8. It’s good for your bones
Vitamin D also helps your body to absorb calcium, which is vital for strong bones. In fact, a lack of sunlight — from covering up and high-factor sunscreens — is thought to be responsible for deficiencies. It can also lead to osteomalacia, a condition where bones soften in adults.
9. It reduces cancer risk
Although over-exposure to the sun increases your skin cancer risk, sunlight can actually help to significantly reduce the risk of other types. In fact, at least 13 cancers — including breast, colon and prostate — have been linked to low vitamin D levels, says Dr Michael Holick, author of The UV Advantage.
10. It helps prevent MS
The exact cause of multiple sclerosis (MS) — the disease of the central nervous system — is unknown. But a study indicates sunbathing can protect against developing the symptoms of MS. Researchers found those with higher exposure to the sun all year round were less likely to be struck down by MS and that exposure to sunlight in childhood appears to dramatically reduce the risk of developing the disease in later life. Other studies show vitamin D3 — derived from sunlight — could reduce the impact of the disease on MS sufferers.
11. It’s good for your skin
Sunlight can be a good treatment for psoriasis, eczema, acne and generally dry skin — but it can also aggravate some skin conditions, particularly rosacea, so it’s important to find the right balance. ‘It’s vital not to let your skin get too dry, so opt for short bursts of sunshine,’ advises dermatologist Nina Goad.
And when the sun isn’t shining?
- Even if it’s cloudy, you can still make vitamin D, so walking or exercising outdoors is an excellent way to get your daily dose without realising.
- There are only a few foods that provide good levels of vitamin D, including oily fish (like salmon and sardines), eggs, fortified cereals and spreads.
- Alternatively, you could consider a supplement. It’s recommended that children aged six months to five years, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, those over 65, people who cover up for cultural reasons and those with darker skins should take supplements. Nutritionist Alex Thompson suggests a daily supplement of 10mcg.
How to stay safe in the sun
While sunlight is the main source of vitamin D, it’s also the main cause of skin cancer, so enjoy the sun safely. This ‘window’ varies — depending on your skin type, the time of day, time of year and where you are in the world.
But, as a rule, the amount of time in the sun without sunscreen that you need to make enough vitamin D is typically short — about 10 minutes. In fact, extra time in the sun doesn’t mean you keep on producing more vitamin D, as any surplus is simply broken down.