Golden Brown, Part IV: Make Like a Fern and Stay

Thus far, we’ve looked at why getting some sun is actually good for you, how to wisely choose and apply sunblock, and how to time your sun exposure to allow the maximum number of hours outside.

Today, however, we’ll be working from the inside out, starting with Polypodium leucotomos, a green leafy fern found in the wilds of Central and South America. Polypodium initially evolved as an aquatic plant, before a changing environment forced it to adapt to life on land. Unable to leverage the sun-blocking effects of water-cover as it had when it lived underwater, the fern instead evolved to produce powerful antioxidants that offset the free-radical damage of all-day above-water sun.

As recent research has shown, those fern antioxidants work nearly as well inside of you, too. By taking pills that contain Polypodium leucotomos extracts, like Heliocare or Solaricare, you can triple or quadruple your natural resistance to burns. In other words, if it might normally take you 15-20 minutes to scorch at a given UV intensity, you could instead hold out for a full hour.

And while, in most cases, that’s not enough to supplant sunscreen, given how quickly sunscreen sweats and washes off (as previously discussed, ‘waterproof’ sunscreens are designed to weather just 40 minutes of swimming and sweating), a belt-and-suspenders approach seems like reasonable insurance.

Pick up some Heliocare or Solaricare, pop one in the morning, and another before and every few hours during your time in the sun. If nothing else, you can offset the $20 cost of a bottle by the money you’ll save on aloe vera. (Which, as we’ll see in the next installment, doesn’t really do much of anything anyway.)

The Full Measure

Simple, brilliant ideas are often obvious in hindsight. Like the great new app, VisualRuler, which allows you to precisely measure the size of an object (like a piece of art you want to frame) using your iPhone.

The app is simple: take a picture of an object next to a credit card or driver’s license – something you’re likely already carrying around at all times – and the app will extrapolate the object’s size by relative comparison, then allow you to export the measurements.

It’s $2.99 on the App Store, and it works like a charm. Measure away.

The Dog

by Ogden Nash:

The truth I do not stretch or shove
When I state that the dog is full of love.
I’ve also found, by actual test,
A wet dog is the lovingest.

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself
and the things he sees
are his reality
Drunks in doorways
Moons on trees
The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
Chickens in Chinatown windows
their heads a block away
The dog trots freely in the street
and the things he smells
smell something like himself
The dog trots freely in the street
past puddles and babies
cats and cigars
poolrooms and policemen
He doesn’t hate cops
He merely has no use for them
and he goes past them
and past the dead cows hung up whole
in front of the San Francisco Meat Market
He would rather eat a tender cow
than a tough policeman
though either might do
And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
and past Coit’s Tower
and past Congressman Doyle
He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower
but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
very depressing
very absurd
to a sad young dog like himself
to a serious dog like himself
But he has his own free world to live in
His own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled
Congressman Doyle is just another
fire hydrant
to him
The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog’s life to live
and to think about
and to reflect upon
touching and tasting and testing everything
investigating everything
without benefit of perjury
a real realist
with a real tale to tell
and a real tail to tell it with
a real live
barking
democratic dog
engaged in real
free enterprise
with something to say
about ontology
something to say
about reality
and how to see it
and how to hear it
with his head cocked sideways
at streetcorners
as if he is just about to have
his picture taken
for Victor Records
listening for
His Master’s Voice
and looking
like a living questionmark
into the
great gramaphone
of puzzling existence
with its wondrous hollow horn
which always seems
just about to spout forth
some Victorious answer
to everything

Golden Brown, Part III: Make Like a Tree and Leave

Researchers who follow hunter-gatherer tribes in tropical and dessert areas have found a nearly universal pattern: during the very hottest hour or two of the day, the members of the tribe get out of the sun completely, to relax and eat in the shade.

Over the course of a summer day, the UV index – the amount of UV radiation reaching ground level – varies hugely. At 12:30pm today in New York, for example, the UV index was at 10, enough to cause burns in just 10 minutes, blazing through even strong sunscreen. Whereas by 1:15, the index had dropped to a 6, allowing for a half hour before burning without protection, and for several hours of happy sun time with a layer of (full-spectrum) sunscreen applied.

A team of outdoorsy engineers in New Zealand recently released a free app, UV Lens, which provides daily hyper-local UV forecasts. With the app in hand, you can easily plan your schedule to mimic the wisdom of our hunter-gatherer ancestors: enjoy the sun in the morning, take a brief, strategically timed mid-day lunch break in the shade, and then head back out once the very highest UV stretch of the day has passed. That way, you can spend far longer outside overall, while still greatly reducing the risk of sun-damage and burn over the course of the day.

Golden Brown, Part II: Screened

As I shared in Part I, getting some sun is good for you, at least if you’re smart and careful about it.

Your first step to that end: get some good sunscreen.

Sunlight is made up of two kinds of ultraviolet rays: UVA and UVB. It’s the latter, UVB, that causes sunburns, so for decades sunscreen was designed to block UVB. But more recently, research has shown that UVA rays, which penetrate deeper, also substantially increase skin cancer risk, and cause wrinkles. (The EPA estimates that up to 90% of aging-related skin changes are actually caused by a lifetime’s exposure to UVA.)

Good sunscreen is therefore ‘full spectrum’ or ‘broad spectrum’, and blocks both UVA and UVB. While those were previously specialty products, in the last year or two, almost all the major sunscreen brands have released reasonably-priced, widely-available versions that block both spectrums. Make sure you only buy sunscreens that do.

Three more sunscreen tips: slather it on, do it often, and stop going nuts with the SPF.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, most people apply only 25-50% of the amount of sunscreen that they need per application, which reduces an SPF 30 sunscreen to an SPF 3. SPF ratings are based on applying two milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin. Which is a lot. Basically, you should briefly look like Casper each time you apply a layer if you want your sunscreen to actually do anything.

Next, a sunscreen is FDA-certified as ‘water resistant’ if it can hold up to 40 minutes of swimming or sweating. After that, all bets are off. So, while you’re on the beach, you also probably need to reapply every hour or so.

And, finally, just buy some SPF 30; after that, the numbers get kind of meaningless. A few years back, Procter & Gamble even sent a letter to the FDA, asking that the numbers be capped at 30, because real-world and laboratory light conditions are different enough to make higher SPFs of “dubious value” that are “at best, misleading to consumers.”

So, to recap, buy some SPF30 full-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen. Put on a bunch, and keep reapplying. And then enjoy the sun!

On Turning 37

Today you remind yourself that although Buddy Holly was 17
When he first sang “Peggy Sue”,
And that Fitzgerald was 24 when he published This Side of Paradise,
And that Dylan was only 21 when he composed
“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”
In the studio while the other musicians shot pool and played cards,

Whitman was 37 when he wrote “Song of Myself”,
Rousseau was 40 when he first picked up a paintbrush in his Paris apartment
And began creating those indelible images of the African jungles
That were largely responsible for the birth of Modern Art,
And even J.F.K,
He of that perpetual youth and beauty that signaled a departure from
The grandfather-politics of men like Eisenhower and Truman,
Was 43 when he took the oath of office for the Presidency.

In other words,
Go back to sleep, buddy.
There is still plenty of time to climb the mountain,
And there is no reason to think that your best days are already behind you.

“On Turning 37” by Kareem Tayyar from Magic Carpet Poems.

Golden Brown, Part I: Get Some Sun

With beach weather upon us, I’m spending this week on a roundup of summer sun tips, with the science behind each, so you can make smarter choices about what works, and what doesn’t.

First up: get some sun. It’s good for you.

While people completely ignore most public health advice, it seems we’ve actually taken warnings about the dangers of tanning too much heart.

Excess sun exposure (and sunburn) increases the risk of skin cancer. But too little sun exposure dangerously decreases your level of vitamin D (which your skin naturally produces when exposed to sun), increasing the risk of a slew of other cancers and heart disease.

As one recent review study concluded, “the overall health benefit of an improved vitamin D status may be more important than the possibly increased melanoma risk resulting from carefully increasing UV exposure.”

In other words, it’s healthy to get back out in the sun. Just be smart and careful about how you do it. Tune in tomorrow, and learn how to wear (good) sunscreen, the right way.

Dog Days

Today is the beginning of the Dog Days of summer, 40 days of especially hot and humid weather with little rainfall, according to the Farmers’ Almanac. The name came from the ancient Greeks. They believed that Sirius, the “dog star,” which rose with the sun at that time, was adding to the sun’s heat. They also believed that the weather made dogs go mad. The Romans tried to appease Sirius by sacrificing a brown dog at the start of the Dog Days. For the Egyptians, the arrival of Dog Days marked the beginning of the Nile’s flooding season, as well as their New Year celebrations.

Dog Days has been adopted by the stock market, because the markets tend to be slow and sluggish; it’s also come to mean any period of stagnation or inactivity.

Huh. I’d always thought “the dog days of summer” was a loose term, rather than a specific set of days, especially one with so much historical context.

That’s the kind of thing I learn regularly via the excellent Writer’s Almanac, a free daily newsletter from Garrison Keillor, which combines a hand-picked daily poem with brief “on this day” historical sketches about writers and thinkers, world events, and interesting odds and ends.

Especially if you’ll be mourning the loss of Keillor’s unique writing voice as part of your life now that Prairie Home Companion has come to an end, go sign up and wake to the Writer’s Almanac in your inbox every morning.

As he would say: be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

Chameleon

I’m not normally a big video-gamer, though I do tend to play games on my iPhone while riding the subway. As I almost always listen to a podcast or audiobook at the same time, I tend to like mindless yet engaging games – something to distract me visually from the sweaty summer riders crowded in around me, as complement to my earbudded audio cocoon.

In the past, Alto’s Adventure has been a favorite, as has Candy Crush, Two Dots, and Twofold.

This past week, however, I discovered Apple 2016 Editor’s Choice Award-winner Chameleon Run, and I’m thoroughly addicted.

The game is an autorunner, with a simple twist: you can change your little running guy’s color from yellow to pink, and you can only run on planks that match your current color. That addition – forcing you to monitor color-switching with your left thumb, while jumping with your right – makes the game far more difficult and interesting than a standard, one-choice autorunner. The levels are also extremely difficult, with multiple variations and paths through each: collect all the marbles, collect all the stars, complete the level without changing color.

Most brilliantly / nefariously, the game also leverages economist Richard Thaler‘s insight about the power of default behavior: when you die (which happens quite a lot), the game automatically restarts the level, without you having to click something to begin again. That small nudge is enough to keep me playing one more try, wait just one more after that, okay seriously just this last one, no seriously after this one I’m putting it down, etc.

If you’re looking for stupid brilliant immersive fun, go download it (for iPhone or Android) yourself.

Suck it Up

For the most part, you should run the other direction from crash diets, fast fixes, and “one weird trick” solutions. But with summer upon us, there is at least one exercise you can still deploy in the last couple of weeks that will make you appear noticeably slimmer when you hit the beach.

It’s called the ‘stomach vacuum’, and it’s an old bodybuilder standby, used by competitors to achieve the waspish waist that was the hallmark look of that sport’s golden era.

The stomach vacuum works the transversus abdominis (or TVA), a deep postural core muscle that serves as essentially a natural corset, holding in your guts. Improving the maximal contractive strength of the muscle also increases the muscle’s tone – its degree of resting contraction. Which, as a result, will carve an inch or two visually off your waistline, even in just two or three weeks.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Ideally, do this first thing in the morning. Or, at least, on an empty stomach.
  2. Start lying on your back, with your feet on the ground.  
  3. Take a full breath, then exhale through your mouth until you've blown out all the air.  
  4. Once your lungs are empty, pull your bellybutton down to your spine, as hard as you can. Really pull it down; the harder you pull, the closer to your spine your bellybutton gets, the better this works.
  5. At the same time, try to make your chest as big as possible (i.e., lift your chest up), though while still pulling down hard on your bellybutton.
  6. Hold that for 15 seconds.  
  7. Then relax, breathe normally for 15-30 second, and repeat, 2-4 times more.

If you stick with this exercise over the course of the summer, you can slowly increase the duration of each hold, adding 5-10 seconds each week, until you’re holding for 60 seconds for each of your 3-5 sets.

Again, this should drop two inches off your waist in just two to three weeks. And, as a bonus, engaging your TVA improves power transfer in athletic movements, and may even protect your low back from tweaks and injuries.

Suck it up, indeed.