Steeler Nation Sheltering in Place and Vitamin D Deficiency

Last Sunday, on my afternoon walk, it felt like I had the neighborhood to myself. I started wondering where all of my neighbors were. Why was I one of only a few people outside on a beautiful sunny afternoon?

Then I realized—it was ‘Stiller’ Sunday. A cultural staple in my city, where people crowd televisions captivated by the Steelers’ and other NFL games airing often from 1-4pm every Sunday—a time when crucial UV rays are at their highest availability and humans have the best chance to absorb them for conversion into vitamin D.

Vitamin D—a key nutrient beneficial for immune-health, bone development, and maintaining musculoskeletal health—is a nutrient that people are commonly deficient in, second only to iron deficiency. The human body needs vitamin D to regulate calcium levels for the production and maintenance of healthy, strong bones, in addition to other immune benefits.

Environmental, physical and behavioral factors affect vitamin D production, but the majority of our vitamin D supply comes from casual sunlight exposure. The amount of UVB in sunlight changes with latitude, season, and time of day, and physical characteristics can also affect vitamin D production (for example, people with darker skin types produce less vitamin D).
On average, there are 160 sunny days per year in Pittsburgh. The US average is 205 sunny days. With sunlight already so hard to come by for Pittsburghers (a problem not helped by reduced daylight during winter) there exists a greater likelihood for vitamin D deficiency that shows no symptoms until bone problems develop later in life. 

The important thing about using the sun for vitamin D production is to remember that less is more. You are better off with short regular exposures to the sun rather than prolonged exposure for many reasons. Typically, Steelers’ fans meet in bars, parking lots, or taverns on game days. But with many establishments not able to run at full capacity due to COVID19 restrictions, we are seeing a shift in the way many fans tune-in—skipping gatherings and tailgates—resulting in fewer trips to and from bars (commutes that might otherwise allow for the requisite sun exposure) and more time inside, deprived of the sun.

With dwindling opportunities for sun exposure, COVID19’s impact on football traditions could be exacerbating the vitamin D deficiencies already problematic in city populations like Pittsburgh.
Many people in this region are encouraged to supplement their diet with foods rich in vitamin D or with supplements containing vitamin D. Nutrient-dense foods like fatty fish (salmon, tuna, and mackerel) are among the best food sources and boost the immune system to prevent disease, fight infection, and promote illness recovery. For example, recent research may connect instances of vitamin D deficiency with severe cases of COVID19 outbreaks. (Patrick, 2020) Small amounts of vitamin D are also found in beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks.

It might be smart, then, to incorporate foods like these into your game-time meals—and more importantly, to take a nice walk a half-time. Finally, if you’re hoping to sit by the window while you watch the next game, remember that glass blocks the UV light required to make vitamin D. So, if you’d like to try that strategy, go for it, just be sure to open the window for the full benefits of the sun!

This post was written by Ali Fisher.

Ali serves at South Hills Interfaith Movement as a health educator.