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  • Writer's pictureDave Balzer

Why getting outside can drastically improve your life... (and Happy End of Daylight Savings Time!)

I recently had a few inspiring interactions with clients involving the power of sunlight and leveraging it to regulate energy, emotions, mood, and sleep. The timing of this was compelling as the end of daylight savings nears this weekend. So, I felt like it was a good time to discuss sunlight and its influence on the body. For instance, did you know that consistent daily sun exposure, especially in the morning, helps improve sleep, regulates metabolism, reduces stress, assists in building strong bones, strengthens your immune system, and also helps improve mood? Amazing, right!?


Positano, Italy - September 2022


Before I dive into how sunlight exposure impacts our physiology, I'd like to share the experience of two of my clients. Both of these individuals were recently hospitalized for fairly long periods and returned home significantly deconditioned. Neither had much tolerance to walking around the house, let alone getting outside on a consistent basis. It was clear after the first few sessions they were both struggling with their mood and energy, sinking further into a depression due to their recent decline in function.


Being hospitalized is extremely challenging on the body. (That's an understatement!) Not only are you dealing with overcoming whatever critical illness put you in the hospital, but your body is also frustrated with being stuck indoors under bright flourescent lights, breathing recycled air, and hearing the constant drone of machines beeping. I would argue hospitals aren't the most healing environments, but they are needed.


Back to my two clients...


After a few failed attempts at encouraging her to go outside during our initial sessions, I caught a beautiful, sunny Fall day and was able to convince her to just sit outside with me. After laboring to walk 10 feet from the couch to the front door (murmuring frustrations under her breath), she sat down on her porch overlooking her front lawn littered with brightly colored fall foliage. The sun shining directly on her face. She turned to me, smiled... sighed, and proclaimed "I haven't felt this good in months!"


Later that afternoon, I saw my other client and upon arrival she was dejected, concerned, and clearly frustrated by her current state of being. After using her dog as encouragement to convince her to come outside with me, she finally made her way to the back deck. We walked in silence back and forth for a minute or two... she eventually stopped with her walker in a gap of direct sunlight, turned to me and broke the silence stating "I feel like a whole new person!".


I understand the benefits of getting sunlight and I knew it would help them both considerably, but I honestly wasn't expecting such a profound response, emotionally and physically, from these women. They both have been diligent in getting outside daily and I have continued to notice significant improvement in mood and overall functional capacity. It's fascinating how just one small action can compound over time and lead to a cascade of improvements in so many aspects of health and wellbeing.


So, enough of my sentimental storytelling...


How does this concept of daily outdoor sunlight exposure relate to YOU, why is it so crucial, and what actionable habits can YOU establish to reap these benefits.


SUNLIGHT IMPROVES SLEEP


Every cell in our body runs on a 24 hour circadian clocks. Upon waking the cells in our brain and body start a timer that slowly ticks towards sleepiness by the end of the day. The "trigger" to guide this clock appropriately is viewing outdoor sunlight. This timer is very predictive and is trained by the sensory inputs we put into the system. Therefore, getting exposure to morning sunlight is one of the most powerful ways to improve sleep. Consistency is key in guiding this circadian clock in the right direction and keeping balance. Having an efficient, well-tuned circadian clock has many downstream effects, such as regulating metabolism, appetite, and mood. For more details on improving sleep check out this blog post.


So, what's your homework for improving sleep by viewing sunlight? Get outside within first 60-90 minutes of waking for 5-10 minutes on a sunny day or 10-20 minutes on cloudy day. As winter approaches this can be much more challenging. Trust me, I grew up in the cold and often dark, dreary winters of northern Illinois, so I completely understand, but prioritizing this can make massive shift in sleep and health.


Something that may be helpful in supplementing your sunlight in the winter is a bright desk lamp. I use this bright light lamp on my desk in the mornings as I am up early before the sunrise in the winter. Many companies make very expensive "light therapy" lamps, but really the purpose is to have a high lux (preferably 10,000+ lux) lamp, so it's not necessary to break the bank on these lamps. Remember, this lamp is a supplement. It's helpful, but doesn't have the full effect of natural sunlight, so I still make sure to get outside within 60-90 minutes of sunrise in the winter. (Side note: in honor, or in celebration in my opinion, of daylight savings time ending... here is an interesting article diving deeper into the health benefits of staying on standard time year-round)


SUNLIGHT HELPS MAINTAIN STRONG BONES


Calcium is the nutrient typically brought up in regards to maintaining bone health through the lifespan. But without vitamin D the body is unable to fully absorb and utilize calcium. Research on vitamin D has exploded the past decade and it's showing the molecule actually acts more as a hormone in the body. For many nutrients, like calcium and magnesium, vitamin D serves as the messenger in guiding these substances to be absorbed and utilizing efficiently in the body. Bone and muscle health is incredibly important later in life. If you are over the age of 65 and suffer a fall the 1 year mortality rate for that individual is 30-40%! So, if you want to preserve your bone health and reduce that risk, prioritize getting outside to get your vitamin D!


SUNLIGHT BOOSTS THE IMMUNE SYSTEM


It's estimated that over 40% of the American population is deficient in vitamin D and I would be curious to know how that statistic is effected by the winter months. Our immune systems are put to the test during this time of year with cold and flu season. The discussion of immune function often focuses on vitamin C, similar to the bone health and calcium relationship, yet vitamin D is overlooked in its critical role is guiding and supporting our T-cells, which serve as the first line of defense in combating illness. The immune system is all about balance. Too much stimulation and an autoimmune disease can set in. Not enough immune activity, then frequent infections can occur. Vitamin D plays a key role in maintaining homeostasis within the immune system. So, if you're looking for a free and easy way to boost your immune system, try a morning walk or a lunchtime stroll around the block.


SUNLIGHT HELPS REDUCE STRESS AND IMPROVE MOOD


The reaction these two clients had to getting outside in the sunlight was not just placebo, there is a scientific reason for sunshine improving mood. Exposure to sunlight has a direct impact on our serotonin and melatonin production. Both of these molecules play crucial roles in regulating mood and emotions. Serotonin is well known for being the "here and now" neurotransmitter... meaning it allows us to feel present, safe, calm, and comfortable -- ridding off irritability. Melatonin is actually converted from the serotonin molecule in the brain and helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. When serotonin and melatonin are well regulated it can lead to improvements in mood, sleep, metabolism, cognition, and hormone function. And guess what... there is one specific molecule that helps synthesize and guide serotonin and melatonin production/function. VITAMIN D! This connection is why many believe seasonal affective disorder is linked to the winter months as there are fewer hours of daylight and therefore a higher risk for dysregulated serotonin and melatonin levels. Just another reason to get outside... early and often!


SEEK IT OUT!


So, let's circle back to my comment in regards to my clients' reaction to getting outside...


"It's fascinating how just one small action can compound over time and lead to a cascade of improvements in so many aspects of health and wellbeing."


I found these two client interactions to be so powerful for many reasons. It's inspiring to see how small actions can make such big impacts. It's inspiring to see how nature and sunlight can completely change how the human body feels and functions. It's inspiring to see how something so simple (yet often difficult) like getting outside regularly can lead to positive health changes. But, most of all it was inspiring to see these clients truly seeking out behaviors that made them feel good! Not some passive treatment like medication, surgery, or injection. They took the time and had the awareness to actually acknowledge what made their body feel good and then made it a point pursue it.


I challenge you to take the time today to seek out the things that makes your body feel good. That may mean working out, calling a friend, or hopefully after reading this article... getting outside in the sun! Enjoy!


Woody never misses a sunrise - Charlottesville, Virginia - April 2022

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