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11th May 2016

Fun in the Sun?

So it's the time of year when Wales has some breathtakingly beautiful vistas, whether they are rugged cliff and beach landscapes, woodlands, meadows or mountains, we've got them all here – and they all look better bathed in sunlight. Yes, whisper it quietly...the sun is out in Wales!

This seasonal development with the appearance of sunlight is not without its complications however. I've been so confused by conflicting advice on sunshine that I'm not sure whether I should be outside responsibly soaking up the right number of rays, or hiding away, safely cocooned by four walls and covered in factor 50 in case some stray UV rays head my way. In favour of venturing out are the benefits of enhanced mood from natural light, vitamin D production, psychological stimulation from differing environments (especially natural environments). On the harms side are the damage to skin that sunlight can cause, especially the risk of skin cancer.

This got me thinking about the people we care for, their ability to access the outdoors and the potential benefits or harms which exposure to sunlight offers them. Some individuals are limited by lifestyle choices, others by physical or mental challenges which limit their ability access outdoor environments. In both cases we may need to consider whether and how to promote access to sunlit fresh-air.

So I decided to look a little more into the harms v benefits trade-off. The current trend towards mindfulness and related approaches to well-being emphasise the psychological benefits of more 'natural' environments. These may be offered in urban areas by parks, and elsewhere by the great variety of rural and coastal environments. The lack of 'busyness' and the pace of these environments has been shown to have a number of positive effects on mood, circulation and blood pressure. Now while venturing into the great outdoors isn't wholly contingent upon the sun making an appearance, it is certainly more likely to happen for most people once the mercury in the thermometer is heading towards the high-teens centigrade accompanied by a few rays of sunshine.

Benefits

The beneficial effect that sunlight has on vitamin D production has widespread effects.  Vitamin D promotes bone growth and encourages the uptake of calcium for bone strength. Recent studies have also shown it to influence/reduce inflammation responses and have a preventative effect on breast and colon cancer.

Our Circadian rhythm is also influenced by exposure to sunlight and can help us to find rest, relaxation and better quality sleep. There is also commonly a mood shift brought about by the lighter days. This response is so strong in some individuals that spring marks the end of their seasonally affective episode.

Managing harms

On the harms side is the known damage that the sun can cause to skin and the possibility of melanoma if the overexposure is repeated. Other individuals may have an allergic response to allergens which are in the atmosphere at this time of year (hayfever) which may make going outside unappealing or even uncomfortable or hazardous if it triggers asthma or dermatological conditions.

Generally the harms are manageable and outweighed by the potential benefits. That would seem to leave us to consider how we can work with service users to encourage their safe and reasonable access to outdoor environments.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

Nic Bowler

Welsh Care and Social Services Inspectorate Specialist

Dr Nicholas Bowler is a researcher and consultant to government-level [Welsh Government Review of Secure Services, 2009] – specialising in QA/compliance focused projects. He has interests in clinically relevant training, service development and research. He enjoys working with clients to support them in identifying problems and initiating projects to improve practice.

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