Spending time in nature in the winter

I find it super easy to spend time outdoors in the summer. Anytime the weather is nice, I’ll almost automatically get out for at least a couple of hours per day. I’m a lot less motivated to do so when it’s cold or wet. This post is largely here to help me remember how nice it is to get outside, even when the weather isn’t so pleasant.

How nice is it? Really, really nice. And yet, I forget, so I end up having to manipulate myself into getting outside in the winter.

I find it easy to manipulate myself with perceived health benefits, such as the well-documented benefits of spending time in nature. I’d find the self-manipulation thing even easier if we knew a bit more about what the “active ingredients” are with regard to time in nature.

Maybe it’s visual. Does the appearance of leaves and trees have some effect on the brain? (I have my own theory that dappled shade has soothing effects on the brain due to our evolution as forest-edge animals.)

Maybe it’s chemical. Trees release all sorts of chemicals into the air, as do bacteria and fungi that live in the soil. I imagine that these are reduced during the winter when the trees are dormant and the soil is covered with snow, but I don’t know of any relevant data.

Besides health benefits, the main ways I motivate myself is either by finding a way to perceive the activity as enjoyable (as being outside on a nice summer day) or else to find a way to smugly perceive the activity as so unpleasant that lesser beings could not bestir themselves to get out in such wretched weather. (One of my mottos: If the weather can’t be good, it should at least be bad enough to be interesting.)

One practical idea I used today: In winter the sunrise is late enough to not have to get up early to get see it. Take advantage of that. See the dawn. Watch the sun rise. Then go back inside where it’s warm.

About 12 minutes before sunrise

Optimal Vitamin D Levels

Here’s a report on a study which measured vitamin D levels of Hadzabe and Maasai individuals living traditional hunter-gatherer or pastoral lifestyles, the data having been collected with an eye toward learning something about what would have been typical during our evolution as a species.

For the Hadzabe the mean was 109 nmol/l and for the Massai 119 nmol/l. These levels are not outside the reference range, but are way above the minimums.

[T]he mean vitamin D concentration of traditional Africans is indicative of the level that would have been typical throughout much of our evolution, and hence, the level that the human physiology would have grown accustomed to over millions of years. Hence, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that such a level may indeed represent optimality…

Source: The Vitamin D Levels of the Hadzabe and the Maasai: An Important Study That Flew Under the Radar

People not living traditional lifestyles can get enough sun to see similar levels, but probably not if they work in an office, and probably not at all in the winter (unless they live in the tropics).

I had my own vitamin D level measured once. It was 38.5 ng/mL (equivalent to 96 nmol/l) versus a reference range of

As I was observing just a few days ago, when exposed to sunlight, your skin does a lot more than just make vitamin D. I’m pretty sure that high vitamin D levels are just a marker for adequate sun exposure. Taking vitamin D supplements in sufficient quantity to raise your blood levels high enough to mimic those of people who get enough sun will produce no more benefit than gaming any metric does.

I’d be interested to know what my vitamin D levels are right now, after a long summer of getting plenty of sun. But not interested enough to go to the effort of convincing my doctor that it’s worth testing again, nor interested enough to pay for the test.

Non-deadly, yet perhaps actinic rays

Sun shining through a lily flower.

I went for a long-for-me, 7.22-mile run this morning, and listened to a podcast about light therapy.

(I go back and forth on listening to podcasts during runs. When I listen I feel like I miss out on being fully embodied in my physical activity. When I don’t listen I fall behind on stuff I really want to listen to. Today I listened.)

The podcast had Paleo Magazineʼs Ashleigh Van Houten interviewing Scott Nelson, the founder of Joovv, talking about the health benefits of exposing your skin to red and near-infrared light. I’d heard about this, but had assumed it was some woo-woo new-agey thing. Turns out it’s probably not. There’s been a huge amount of research on the benefits of exposing your skin to red light in the 660-nanometer and near-infrared light in 850-nanometer range.

(There was apparently a lot of research funded by NASA back in the 1990s when they had to use lasers to get light of just the right frequency. Nowadays LEDs make it easy to get the intensity and frequency of light that you want.)

So, I’m out on my run, listening to Ashleigh and Scott talk about all the health benefits to your skin (of the red light) and to deeper connective tissues (of the near-infrared) and thinking that it all sounds really cool, but knowing that I’m probably never going to want to spend even hundreds, let alone thousands, of dollars to buy a device that will shine bright red light on my skin.

At around the mid-point, maybe 4 miles into my run, I paused for a drink of water out of the fountain in Morrissey Park, thinking it was pretty hot for just 8:40 AM . Which made me think of this giant glowing orb in the sky, which was shining down on me with pretty intense light at a wide range of frequencies, most definitely including red and near-infrared.

Turns out, sure enough—the energy in the red and near-infrared frequencies of sunlight is right in the range of therapeutic doses shown to have health benefits.

Of course, full sunlight is full of other frequencies of light, including blue (prone to mess up your circadian rhythm if you’re exposed too close to bedtime, but just what you want to get your circadian rhythm set correctly if you get your exposure in the early morning like I was doing), and ultraviolet (dangerous in excess, but the UV index was zero when I started my run at 7:40 AM and probably didn’t reach 5 before I was safely back indoors). So you need to treat sunlight with respect. But I already knew that.

I have mentioned before that I feel better when I spend a lot of time outdoors, and have speculated that sun exposure is part of the reason. (Along with time in nature, moving more, appropriate quantities of community and solitude, etc.) The information about red and near-infrared light exposure seems to lean a bit in the sunlight direction—but with the welcome news that it’s not just the vitamin D that helps make me feel better, which means maybe I can feel great without having to expose myself so much to the deadly actinic rays of the sun.

Maybe there are non-deadly actinic rays!

A simple daily routine, with writing

I visited my dad in Kalamazoo last week, and managed to establish a bit of a routine for both of us:

  1. I’d get up around 6:00 AM and spend some time on-line, checking my feeds and email, and doing the Jumble with my brother and my mom (and anyone else in his household who was available).
  2. My dad would get up around 7:00 AM and we’d each fix our breakfasts and eat them.
  3. Around 8:00 AM we’d each settle down to do a couple of hours of writing.
  4. Around 10:00 AM we’d stop for a coffee break.
  5. After coffee we’d go to a natural area and walk until we got tired or hungry, at which point we’d break for lunch.
  6. After lunch we’d put some time in on our assigned non-writing task for the week (getting as much as possible of my dad’s old papers and junk gathered and sorted for shredding, recycling, or taking to the dump).

That was the end of the productive part of the day. After that was cocktail hour followed by dinner, typically followed by streaming a Cardinal’s game.

It was a pretty satisfying schedule—productive, but with plenty of time to be social, both with my dad in person and with my other relatives on-line, and plenty of time to be outdoors in nature. (My dad has been keeping up on the latest research on how being in nature is good for your mood, as well as many other aspects of your health.)

Because it was so satisfactory, I’m going to try to maintain a version of this schedule going forward. One complication is that Jackie’s work schedule has her breakfasting very early on days that she needs to be at the bakery early, but not necessarily that early on other days. Still, that’s just a detail that can be worked around.

The picture at the top shows a buttonwood plant that my dad and I saw while walking in the fen at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum near where my dad lives in Kalamazoo.