We're all feeling a little better these days. Maybe a lot better. We love the extra sunlight that the longer days bring; the warmer air, green grass, promising gardens — all of the signs that a beautiful summer is on the way. Even winter enthusiasts have to admit that daily activities are easier in lovely weather.
Why not leverage all of the optimistic feelings that this change in season brings to enhance health and improve quality of life? Consider this an invitation to view summer differently; to joyfully and mindfully be aware of opportunities that only come once a year, yet provide lasting benefits for the cooler, darker days that follow. Here are a few ideas:
• Welcome nature back into your life. Our generation spends far less time outdoors than our ancestors, who were not burdened by the obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic illnesses that afflict many of us today. There's plenty of blame to go around. We no longer depend on the family farm for fresh and natural food, and we don't walk miles a day — thanks to cars. Technology keeps us glued to our devices and as a result, we grow more oblivious to the splendor outside. Combine all of this with a growing fear of sunlight and it adds up to Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by author Richard Louv to describe the health consequences of too little time and activity outside.
• Enjoy the sunlight. I don't mean that anyone should bake in it for hours at a time. The risk of skin cancer caused by too much unprotected exposure to UV rays is real. Yet, small doses of direct sunlight as often as possible this summer can elevate mood, improve cognitive function, decrease stress, and contribute to a better night's sleep by triggering the release of serotonin. Being outdoors exposes us to a quality of light that can never be duplicated indoors. Nature is literally packed with the amber and red light spectrum that we know is important to human health.
Direct sunlight at least three times a week will exponentially increase the body's store of Vitamin D, which has great health benefits that go well beyond keeping bones strong. Like all good things in life, balance is required. Experts say less than 15 minutes of direct sunlight will stimulate the human skin to produce quantities of Vitamin D that exceed our daily need, and you can't overdose on Vitamin D created by the sun. After that, put on a hat and sunscreen and continue enjoying the sun.
• Plant a garden. Gardening and other types of yardwork are every bit as effective as a treadmill for exercise. Working around the yard includes functional movements such as bending and lifting — a great core and cardiovascular workout that will improve strength and balance. The beauty that results from your efforts will lift the spirits.
A growing body of evidence points toward a connection between exposure to soil and an improved human microbiome, which is composed of microbes that live in and on the body and which play an important role in maintaining the immune system. Researchers who sampled the saliva and blood of gardeners found a rich diversity of microbes, which are associated with better health and longevity. Not all germs are bad, especially those in your garden.
Taking advantage of local fresh produce at our farmer's markets is a terrific way to find nutritious foods and to support our local farmers.
• Get outside and socialize. Our need to be connected to others is a powerful impulse that has evolved over millions of years. Loneliness is a documented significant risk factor for health issues and a shorter life. In fact, some studies report that spending time with friends is as essential to good health as exercise and nutrition. Now that summer is almost here, it's time to step outside, say hello, and deliberately make plans to spend time with family and friends.
Welcome summer this season with new opportunities for better health.
Mark Pettus, MD, is Director of Medical Education and Medical Director of Wellness and Population Health at Berkshire Health Systems. He is the author of The Savvy Patient: The Ultimate Advocate For Quality Health Care, and It's All in Your Head: Change Your Mind, Change Your Health.