Though it’s still unseasonably cool in many parts of the country, summer is approaching, which means more time spent outdoors.  Or at least, we hope you’ll be spending more time outdoors! Most of us have heard since we were kids the health benefits of fresh air and sunshine, and much of what we heard is rooted in scientific fact–sunshine is one of the best sources of vitamin D, which allows the body to absorb calcium and phosphorus.  Due to Americans leading a more sedentary, indoor lifestyle in recent years, as well as skin cancer fears discouraging people from spending time in direct sunlight, doctors have seen an increase in vitamin D deficiency, which can contribute to such deteriorative bone diseases as osteoporosis and rickets.

While it’s still not a wise idea to spend all day in the sun without protection, spending a half hour to an hour a day outdoors in good weather is recommended for optimal health.  One of the best ways to get some extra sunshine and exercise is by taking a long walk or even a hike in the woods.  If your body has gotten unused to exercise, start with a walk around your neighborhood, as hiking takes more stamina and physical exertion.  If you’re recovering from an injury or illness, check with your doctor to make sure you’re fit enough for exercise.

Some other tips for an enjoyable walk:

Wear good shoes designed for walking.  Flip flops are a staple of summer wardrobes, but they should really be reserved for the beach or pool.  Flip flops offer no arch support, which can lead to foot and leg pain, and leave toes and the sides of the feet exposed to dirt, broken glass and other hazards.  Invest in a pair of sneakers for walking, or hiking boots for more extended excursions.  Make sure they fit properly and offer both arch and ankle support, and always remember to wear socks with them.

Don’t forget water. While this may not be necessary if you’re just walking around your block a couple of times, for longer walks on hot days, be sure to take a bottle of water with you.  Recognize the signs of dehydration (dry mouth, fatigue, dizziness, headache) and remember to drink often.

Use proper sun protection.  The body needs sunlight, but protection from harsh UV rays is necessary when spending time outdoors.  Sunglasses and a hat are a good start, and, if your skin is especially vulnerable to sunburn, wearing sunblock with an SPF of 50 or higher is recommended.  Even if you don’t burn easily, it’s a good idea to use lower SPF sunscreen anyway, especially on the face and arms.  You can still enjoy the benefits of sunshine without the hazards!

Carry insect repellent.  Some of us seem to provide a bigger feast for insects than others, but regardless it’s a good idea to use such over the counter repellents as Off, particularly if you will be spending time in wooded areas.  Mosquito and chigger bites can be itchy and painful, and may cause welts if you’re allergic to them.  After walking in wooded areas, check yourself for ticks, as their bites may cause Lyme Disease, an infectious illness that can affect the nervous system and heart.  If you’re allergic to bee stings, make sure you carry an epi-pen, or any other supplies you may need to prevent an allergic reaction.

Bring a snack! If you’re planning on walking for an extended distance or period of time, bring along a healthy snack.  Fresh fruit is a good choice, as is trail mix.  Some store-bought trail mixes can be expensive depending on what kind of nuts and dried fruits are used, if you’re on a budget try making your own with low-salt peanuts, chocolate chips and raisins.  Avoid packing food or snacks that may quickly spoil without refrigeration, such as sandwiches containing lunch meat, or anything made with mayonnaise, such as tuna fish or potato salad.

Don’t leave your cell phone at home.  While you may want to use a long walk to get away from things for a little while, you should still take your cell phone with you.  Though it’s highly unlikely that you’ll run into an emergency while on a walk, a cell phone is always handy if you’re injured or feeling ill, if you come across someone else who needs assistance, or even if you just get lost and need help finding your way back.  Better to have it and not need it than vice versa!

Gena Radcliffe

Medex Supply Blogger

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