A word of warning before we begin, though: overexposure to the sun's UV rays is the main cause of skin cancer. When the sun is strong – or you're out in it for more than a few minutes – always use a sunscreen with at least SPF15 and four stars, and reapply regularly. Get more information at www.cancerresearchuk.org.
Super sun creams
1. You'll live longer
Yes, really. Well, that's according to a major new study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Researchers tracked 30,000 women over a 20-year period and found that those who actively spent the most time in the sun enjoyed a longer life expectancy than their shade-loving counterparts. Increased sun exposure was associated with a decrease in deaths from heart disease and cancer.
In fact, say the researchers, lack of sunshine could pose as much of a health risk as smoking. Lead author Dr Pelle Lindqvist comments: 'We found smokers in the highest sun exposure group were at a similar risk as non-smokers avoiding sun exposure, indicating avoidance of sun exposure to be a risk factor of the same magnitude as smoking.'
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2. Sunshine will strengthen your bones
Our bodies create vitamin D from direct sunlight on our skin. We get the majority of our vitamin D in this way – although research by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition suggests we're still not getting enough. This vital nutrient encourages the absorption of bone-building calcium and phosphorus. Without it, we're more prone to falls, breakages and muscle weakness. The good news? Just 10 minutes of sun exposure to your bare skin, once or twice a day, should suffice.
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3. Sunshine will lower your blood pressure
Here's one of the reasons why sun exposure may help you live longer: it cuts risk of heart attack and stroke by reducing blood pressure, according to researchers at the Universities of Southampton and Edinburgh. The reason? Sunlight alters levels of the small messenger molecule, nitric oxide, in the skin and blood; this in turn lowers blood vessel tone so regulates blood pressure.
Why your heart needs vitamin D
4. Sunshine may help you lose weight
Moderate sun exposure may slow weight gain and so protect against obesity and diabetes, says a study at Edinburgh University. When overfed mice were exposed to UV light, they put on less weight and displayed fewer diabetes-related symptoms, such as abnormal glucose levels and insulin resistance. The effects were again linked to nitric oxide.
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5. Sunshine will lift your mood
You don't need us to tell you that a sunny day can make you happier. One reason for this is that lack of sunlight leads to lower levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin. Other studies have shown a link between vitamin D and mood. In a small study at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, for example, students with depressive symptoms and low blood levels of vitamin D were encouraged to spend more time in the sun. After seven weeks, the group displayed significantly fewer symptoms – an effect the researchers put down to the vitamin D boost.
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6. You'll feel more flirty in the sun
While we're on the topic of mood-lifting, you may be interested to learn that flirting is 'more likely to have a positive outcome' on sunny days, according to a French study published in the journal Social Influence.
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7. Sunshine could boost your eyesight
Spend more time outdoors in the sunshine, and you'll give your eyes a workout by focusing on objects that are both near and close by, rather than sitting in front of a screen all day. But do protect your eyes from the UV light with a good pair of sunglasses: look for the British standard BSEN 1836:1997. Incidentally, it's worth encouraging your grandchildren to join you, too: scientists in Australia have found that exposure to sunlight can regulate the growth of the eyeball during childhood, so dramatically reduce risk of short-sightedness.
How to protect your eyes in the sun
8. Sunshine may reduce dementia risk
Vitamin D deficiency is associated with a substantially increased risk of dementia in older people, according to an international study led by Dr David Llewellyn at the University of Exeter Medical School. Over-65s who were moderately deficient in vitamin D had a 53 per cent increased risk of developing the condition, while risk rose to 125 per cent in those who were severely deficient. Remember, getting out in the sunshine for just 15 minutes is enough to boost your vitamin D levels.
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