Focus on One: August

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love the water. I grew up in New Jersey, southern New Jersey, where an escape to the beach for the day was 45 minutes away. Nowadays, with the popularity of the destination and the increase in the local population, the trip takes at least an hour, but the beautiful white sand and the smell of the salt water is worth it. I’ve also lived in Michigan, not far from Lake Michigan, and no, it is not “just like the ocean.” It is big, yes, and sunsets are amazing, and it has incredible, enormous sand dunes, but fresh water is different from salt water and the waves are smaller. It is no less awe-inspiring, just different. And I have lived in Colorado, right on a river in a canyon. Smaller, of course, and I could see the other side, but fast moving and really cold all summer. Again, a completely different experience of water. I love a day in the sun, in and out of the water, and reading a book. Focus on One for August is simply to get to the beach and read a book.

It actually takes a lot for me to sit and read a book if it has nothing to do with what I am teaching in the coming year. I have no problem reading novels I am going to teach, or criticism of works I am going to teach, or collections of essays in search of new things to teach, but pleasure reading is a problem. I have to give myself permission and then stop that voice in my head that keeps saying, “You should be re-reading King Lear.” But reading for pleasure is a different activity altogether. Sure any kind of reading is good for my brain, but reading a novel for pleasure actually reduces stress, improves memory, helps develop analytical abilities, and helps with focus so that when I am reading for work, my mind doesn’t wander.

Another benefit of a day at the beach with a book is getting out in the sun. Oh, I know the cancer risks. But don’t put on the sunscreen until about 20 minutes have passed. While sunscreen protects your skin from harmful effects of UV light, it also prevents your skin from being able to manufacture Vitamin D. The good news is that most people won’t get a sunburn in 20 minutes, the time it generally takes for the body to generate enough Vitamin D for the day. And here’s what is interesting. If you are extremely fair-skinned, it takes less time for you to produce the same amount of Vitamin D than someone who is darker skinned, therefore, 5 or 10 minutes of “unprotected” sun time may be enough. I am not saying everyone should ditch the sunscreen. I am saying that a short amount of time in the sun will increase the amount of Vitamin D your body can produce.

Before the school year starts up, and everything gets crazy again, take a day, or an afternoon, or even an evening, and get out to a relaxing spot with a book.

Focus on One: Fun in the Sun

Summer is upon us: time spent outdoors, picnics, barbecues, vacations to the beach or the mountains, or just a day at a water park, it all leads up to fun in the sun. Why is it that I always feel so good, exhausted sometimes, but that good exhausted, after spending the day in the garden, or at the beach? Why do I sleep so well on those nights, in a house without air-conditioning, even if it only goes down to 75?

My first idea was that it was a response to the physical activity. But the thing is, I am pretty active – I garden, I walk our dogs, I clean house, I preserve food. After a little research, I found out that the beach has many restorative powers, like the iodine present in sea-water that helps thyroid function, and the salt in the water that has cleansing properties. But I realized that it wasn’t just on beach days. In fact, I feel much better in the warmer months, when I can get outside. I still walk the dogs, no matter the weather, we are out there, rain, snow, sub-zero (we don’t get much of that in NJ, but a rainy 33 can be more menacing of a walk than a dry -2), but I don’t sleep as well, and just don’t feel as well in the winter months.

I continued my research and I stumbled on some interesting facts about Vitamin D, and how varying levels can have a huge effect on how I am feeling. Vitamin D is photosynthesized by our skin, and we can reach an intake level adequate to meet our daily needs with 10 to 20 minutes of sun exposure, depending upon where you live and you skin tone. Yes, you can take a supplement, but the sun is free, and no, 10 – 20 minutes of exposure is not going to cause skin cancer. Of course, if you are photosensitive, or you’re taking medication that makes you photosensitive, you should avoid exposure.

I also came across an article about the benefits of sunlight that gave me some food for thought: while the extensive use of sunscreen has reduced incidents skin cancer, there has also been an increase in musculo-skeletal disorders and autoimmune diseases, two things that are connected to Vitamin D photosynthesis. It will be interesting to see how bone health issues play out in the future, if we continue to use so much sunscreen and limit that amount of time we spend outdoors.

Sun exposure also improves serotonin levels, which helps melatonin levels. These things help people fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and get better sleep. I have two insomniac friends that vacation at the Jersey shore every summer and they always say that they sleep better that week than any other week of the year. OK, so you say, “Well, they are on vacation. No stress.” I beg to differ – even if the vacation is to a place you really want to visit, as a parent/mom, there is tremendous pressure to ensure everyone is having a good time, that everyone is taken care of. But they are in the beach all day, everyday, breathing in the salt air, sitting in the sun.

I’m not saying throw the sunscreen in the trash – if you are going to be on the beach all day, or you’re coaching at soccer camp for 8 hours, by all means, slather up with the sunscreen. But if you are just going for a walk at lunch time, and you will only be outdoors for 15 or 20 minutes, forget the sunscreen and let the Vitamin D do its wonders. Focus on One for July? Get outside every day, even for just 10 minutes, and have a little fun in the sun!