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Health benefits of sun exposure for runners

Silhouette of man and woman running jogging together into sunset

Researchers found exposure to sunlight may lower blood pressure.

Runners are among athletes that spend the most time outdoors. While getting your dose of vitamin G, as greenspace has been nicknamed for its positive effect on health, is great, runners are also at higher risk for skin damage due to sun exposure. We all know the look of an older, wizened runner whose skin bears the evidence of many Ks logged under the sun. A study in Archives of Dermatology found that marathon runners demonstrated an above average number of moles and age spots, warning signs of malignant melanoma. Researchers determined that it was not only the extra exposure that left runners vulnerable, but also the fact that long-term intense exercise leads to the suppressing of the immune system, leaving the skin at an increased risk for damage.

So should you give up your ‘vitamin G’ to save your skin? Absolutely not. Being outside in the sunlight allows your body to absorb vitamin D, a vitamin involved in the absorption of calcium and phosphorous and therefore essential to the maintenance of bone mass. Low levels of vitamin D have also been connected to autoimmune diseases, hypertension and increased risk of some cancers. According to Statistics Canada’s 2013 data, about 32 per cent of Canadians fall below sufficient levels of vitamin D.

Recent research from Edinburgh University has shown that vitamin D isn’t the only reason to get out in the sun. Researchers found that the nitric oxide located in the skin is activated by sunlight. Once in circulation, the nitric oxide has the ability to dilate blood vessels, which reduces blood pressure and, consequently, one’s risk for stroke and heart attack.

Other benefits from sunlight-activated nitric oxide may be even more appealing for athletes. New research presented at the American College of Sports Medicine noted that when cyclists spent 20 minutes under a UVA lamp, they performed better in a 16K time trial than they did without the dose of sun exposure. According to exercise physiologist Chris Eaton of the University of the West of Scotland, “the large stores of nitric oxide released from the skin help more blood and oxygen flow to your muscles. Plus, by reducing the amount of oxygen the muscles use to produce force, the nitric oxide helps you go harder, longer.”

Make sure you aim for the happy medium – try get sun exposure for a few minutes each day. Schedule recovery and eat properly to keep your immune system in peak condition. Most importantly, enjoy the ‘vitamin G’ while getting your vitamin D.