Serious Science Behind Fun in the Sun

“Shut that thing off and go play outside!” 

Sound familiar? Whether you have said it or heard it, there’s more to this directive than just getting some much-needed peace and quiet. Science has proven the many ways in which spending time outside actually benefits a child’s health, mood and general well-being. So, chalk another one up for Mom, science has her (your) back on this one.

 

Fresh Air 

First, lets consider the negative effects of staying inside all summer. For starters, buildings that are not properly ventilated can produce “sick building syndrome.” This is where the stale air causes headaches, respiratory difficulties and other symptoms akin to a typical cold.  The lack of sufficient plant life indoors sets an imbalance in CO₂ to O₂ levels promoting drowsiness. Spending time in fresh air surrounded by nature is shown to energize 90% of people. Air-borne diseases that thrive in a building are no longer a risk, plus the body naturally produces kill cells (neutrophils and monocytes) with exercise as low-key as a walk. 

 

Ever suggest your child, “Stop and smell the roses”? Well there might be more to this adage too, just don’t limit it to roses. Certain plant aromas produce desirable effects. Freshly shorn grass, for example, can be invigorating whereas lavender and chamomile can have a relaxing or calming effect, and the scent of pine trees decreases stress. Rather than spending money on Airborne™ and essential oils, have your child step outside and inhale all the goodness available to them for free.

 

Sunlight 

Unlike even the best light bulbs, sunlight contains all of the spectrums of light that the body and brain need. The human body uses near-infrared light to produce mitochondrial energy (which is the literal powerhouse of the human body) and maintain systemic equilibrium. Insufficient sunlight exposure can lead to low ATP (cellular energy), which amongst a host of other problems, can cause chronic fatigue syndrome. 

 

Ever notice how worn out your kid gets the night after spending the day outside? One of the reasons is sunlight boosts the internal circadian rhythm.  As the darkness descends, the melatonin in their system increases causing sleepiness. This mechanism is at its peak effectiveness when the natural cues of sunlight and darkness are palpable. If inside all day/night, the body can get confused and interpret screen light as sunlight, therefore not getting the cue to rest until hours after screen time has ended.

 

Other more obscure health benefits of sunlight include the priming of cells in the retina for repair and regeneration. So, whereas it is definitely NOT recommended to look directly into the sun, some indirect sunlight in the eye is advantageous. UVA light is also proven to kill infections in the blood as well as bacteria on the skin. An easy illustration of the power of sunlight as a natural disinfectant is placing one bottle of sugar water in the shade and one in direct sunlight. The bottle in the sun stays clear whereas the shaded bottle grows cloudy with bacterial growth. 

 

Perhaps the most marked benefit of exposure to the sun in a State such as Minnesota which feels consumed by winter ¾ of the year, is its mood-boosting abilities. Sunlight attacks low mood on many fronts, which is why alternatives have been concocted such as a Seasonal Affective Disorder Lamp. The Ultra Violet spectrum of sunlight stimulates keratinocytes to make beta-endorphins which are mood-boosting. Also, serotonin, one of the brain’s main neurotransmitters associated with regulation of mood (as well as social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep and memory to name a few) is released in response to sunlight. Lastly, Vitamin D is produced in response to sun exposure. Vitamin D has a direct link to alleviating some depression as it is a potent anti-inflammatory and chronic inflammation of the brain can cause depression. Nitric Oxide is another byproduct generated by UVA light which relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure, stimulates the brain and is a natural antioxidant, all of which have a positive impact on brain function and mood.

 

Enough with the science; you get why your kids should go outside, but the question now becomes how. It can be as organic as Night Games at sunset with the neighborhood kids, but for those times when “there’s nothing to do!” I find having an easily accessible list of things to do outdoors counters this complaint nicely.

See below for links to options ranging from casual outings to more structured, organized activities. Present the opportunity to your children to explore what wonders Minnesota has to offer this summer, and they may just come back healthier, happier and ready for more.

 

Child not much for walking and require more entertainment?
If night games or other neighborhood-driven activities are not available, expend some energy at:

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