Why Spending Time Outside — Especially in the Winter — Is So Important for Your Mental Health

The link between our moods and sunlight may be even stronger than previously thought, a new study suggests.

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If the Sun was our employee, it'd be so fired every winter. Its cold-weather work ethic is horrendous. Think about it: You trudge to work in the dark because the Sun is sleeping in, and you trudge back home in the dark because the Sun has already peaced out for the day. For many of us, a winter workday means we might not see the Sun all day long. Not cool, Sun.

Actually, it's worse than than not cool, because getting ghosted by the Sun likely affects our mental health. Past research has shown that sunlight increases the brain's serotonin production and boosts our moods — and, conversely, a lack of sunlight (and the resulting lack of vitamin D) has been linked with depression. And now, a large November 2016 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders is backing up that research in a big way.

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Brigham Young University researchers found that sunlight is more closely linked to changes in mood than any other weather-related factor — and that's true for more than just people who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that's connected to the changing of the seasons.

To conduct the study, a psychologist, physicist, and statistician from BYU analyzed local weather data (looking specifically at 19 different variables, which included sunlight, rain, temperature, and pollution) over the course of six years. They then compared this info with nearly 16,500 therapy patients' archived emotional health data from the same time period.

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The researchers were surprised to find that some types of weather that people often assume are related to depression (i.e. rain) had little to no significant correlation with poor mental health; changes in sunlight, on the other hand, were found to be closely connected to changes in the participants' levels of emotional distress: The patients' mental health worsened during periods of low sun and improved during periods of high sun.

The moral of this story? We can't fire the Sun for its poor performance this season, so take advantage of sunny winter days as best as you can. Get up and go outside as much as possible: Playing with your dog in the yard, walking to work, and taking your coffee break outside are all simple ways you can squeeze a few more rays into your day.

Now, get out there and soak up the sun! (Just don't forget your sunscreen.)

[h/t Huffington Post]

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