Can a Winter Walk Change Your Life?

Anthropologists believe that humans have probably existed in something close to our current form for at least 300,000 years. With the exception of modern times, human activity was almost all outdoors in natural daylight. Unfortunately, our species has been a bit too clever in creating dim and unnaturally lit boxes to live in that go by names like home, school, office, store, etc. What is common to most of these boxes is a lack of natural light. The irony is that in the process of swaddling ourselves in comforts unimaginable by our ancestors, we created unhealthy lighting in our living spaces.

While the ramifications of opposing our natural needs are many and complex, getting more natural light has an easy fix – just take a walk outdoors in daylight. Natural light helps us manufacture vitamin D3, helps reduce mood disorders, and in moderation reduces the incidence of melanomas. While the mechanism by which vitamin D3 is produced by natural sunlight has been understood for almost 100 years, researchers are only now beginning to understand that natural light is probably involved in the synthesis of many other important health regulating factors.

More than twenty percent of Americans experience mood disorders like depression. Fortunately, most depression is the result of accumulated situational effects and not the result of a disease. In some cases, medications are used to help a person through a rough patch of depression. Interestingly, clinical psychologists have long known that walking outdoors in daylight is usually more effective than antidepressants or anxiolytics (meds for anxiety) in relieving anxiety and depression. Fortunately, almost any outdoor daylight exercise can be helpful. Brisk daylight activities often provide the most positive effects (fast walking, running, biking, dancing, outdoor sports, etc.) Both the duration and the intensity have positive effects. If words like walking and exercise sound punishing then reconsider your choices. Keep it fun and it will happen more easily and more frequently.

Of course, there is more to our moods than exercise and natural sunlight. People who feel passion for their work, friends, and families don’t become depressed as often. Also, people that can maintain a sense of wonder and awe don’t become depressed very often. If not blessed from birth with the happiness gene or an amazing sense of wonder, don’t despair. Quite possibly what you need is more activity in natural daylight.

Organizing our lives so that we have routine outdoor daytime activities is beneficial for our health. For some a half hour after work or the weekend warrior approach can be effective mood-boosting time. These routine activities could be recreational or home related such as washing a car, gardening, cleaning leaves off the driveway, or any manner of garden or yard work.

For some, being outdoors in nature is a mood therapy like meditation without having to sit still. For many, it stimulates their mind to reveal innovative ideas and to help solve long-standing problems. For others, they find a spiritual experience in the stillness, beauty, and majesty of nature. For me, an occasional trip to the ocean or mountains pretty well covers all of the above. When that’s not possible a walk in the park or along a greenway is my favorite medicine.

If your outdoor daylight time has been reduced to walking from the front door to your car then it’s time for a change. Perhaps there is a clean grassy field nearby where you can take off your shoes and feel the earth. While barefoot, many experience an improved mood, fewer worries, fewer anxieties and as a result more happiness and health.

Perhaps finding an opportunity to be outdoors at this time in life is impossible. If this is your situation, then consider buying a full spectrum light box. Just know that a walk outdoors is free. A quality light box to supplement indoor lighting may cost over $200. Daylight on a sunny day can provide twelve times more natural light than a top of the line light box. As shown in the table below, even on a shady day, sunlight can provide twice the illuminance of the best light box.

Daylight intensity in different conditions

Brightest sunlight: 120,000 lux
Bright sunlight: 111,000 lux
Shade illuminated by entire clear blue sky, midday: 20,000 lux
Typical overcast day, midday: 1,000 – 2,000 lux

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Is Light Therapy Right for You

Some people find Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lights helpful. From a medical perspective there are problems when trying to prescribe them. Currently, insurance will not pay for them until there is more research to determine which people will benefit, which products work best and how to time exposure to the light. Without more research to show which SAD light products help, it’s difficult to make a recommendation. Most products are sketchy on specifications and lacking in studies that demonstrate their effectiveness. In essence, SAD lights are viewed by insurance companies as experimental devices. While the science of medicine depends on long term studies of large populations, the art of medicine allows for doctors to make decisions that are more attuned to difference in individuals for which studies don’t yet exist. In essence, if a light box can help is difficult to know. When all else has been tried and failed it’s usually worth a try. We do know that a body of anecdotal reports tell us that SAD light therapy may help to:

• Improve mood
• Overcome negative thoughts and emotions
• Sleep better
• Not over sleep
• Feel more uplifted and positive about life
• Focus and be attentive
• Feel joyful and renewed
• Combat negative thoughts
• Balance appetite
• Conquer the urge to hibernate or isolate yourself
• Help you to get excited about the things that you normally love

What is a Lightbox

A light therapy box is a light source that mimics outdoor light. Often the product is packaged as a box like device and sometimes as a device in the form of a more conventional looking lamp. Typically a lightbox is used within the first hour of waking up for about 20-30 minutes.

Some studies show that a light box needs to provide about 10,000 lux of light. For safety, it should also emit very little ultraviolet (UV) light. Be aware that light boxes are not approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While you can buy a light box from a wide range of companies making remarkable claims, it’s important to carefully review the specifications and buy from a reputable source.

For more about light boxes read “Seasonal affective disorder treatment: Choosing a light therapy box” and “Not all light boxes meet the recommended requirements for treating SAD.”

Additional Resources

How SAD Lamps Can Help You Fight Seasonal Depression
Northern Light Technology (light boxes)
Alaska Northern Lights (light boxes)

Ready for a daylight walk? Why not join me for a walk around the lakes at Jones Farm Park. Hope to have you join me.

Nancy Neighbors, MD

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Published by Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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