Getting Outside this Memorial Day

This long weekend is different from other federally recognized holidays. Memorial Day, while frequently viewed as the unofficial start to the summer, is a time to remember and reflect upon those who have given their lives for our country. As such, this week, we have decided not to focus on visiting fun places in a state but instead remind ourselves of why it’s so important to get outside.

Perhaps you will be visiting the graveside of a loved out, a national memorial or an outdoor gathering with friends and family. Whatever you’re doing, plan to spend some time outside. Getting out into the sunshine is essential not only for your mood but also your health. Tanning is not healthy. However, being outside in regular clothes and exposing skin to sunlight helps your body produce vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin.”

It is almost impossible to get enough vitamin D through food. Supplements are available, but the easiest way to get vitamin D is to expose your skin to ultraviolet B light. It only takes a short while in the sun for your body to produce more than enough vitamin D, about half the time it would take for you to start burning. Depending on how much of your skin is exposed, fifteen minutes might be sufficient for a very light-skinned person. For people with darker skin, the time needed will be longer.

Vitamin D not only plays its own role in your body but also helps other nutritional components to function. Your body cannot create enough calcitriol, a hormone known as “active vitamin D,” which allows you to absorb calcium for healthy bones. That’s why milk frequently has added vitamin D, to aid the calcium in milk do its job to strengthen and build bone.

While vitamin D is usually spoken about in relation to bone, it also helps muscle health. It aids not only muscle mass but also strength and performance. It supports function, allowing older people more mobility. A study, with self-reported activity and blood tests from people 55 and up, showed that everyday life and mobility correlated with higher vitamin D levels. These daily activities were things like the ability to ascend and descend flights of stairs, dress oneself and walk outside for five minutes. The results were quite clear: for older people, a higher level of vitamin D helps people maintain their daily life.

Finally, a perhaps most significantly, the vitamin protects people from inflammation that damages leukocyte telomere length. Telomeres are the caps of chromosomes. Long term illness and other stressors shorten telomeres. Shorter telomeres are related to many age-related diseases. Aging in and of itself shortens telomeres and increases our risk for illness. Vitamin D, protecting the telomeres, helps protect the body against rheumatoid arthritis and aids immune and heart health.

So, while you are outside this weekend, reflecting on our nation’s past, soak up a little sun to aid your health.

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