Vacations: Are They Good for Your Health?

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You count the days. You spend weeks planning and hours packing. Your friends, family, and every citizen within a 20 mile radius knows you’re leaving and exactly where you’re going. Are you looking that forward to the destination or to leaving behind all the – well, you know? Maybe it’s the sheer novelty more than anything else. You’ve needed something new. You’re ready to check out, break out, get away, forge ahead, and dig in. Just how long has it been since you up and left last time? How long has it been since your last great vacation?

Too often (especially in the United States), we forgo vacation. Although Americans tend to get fewer days off than many in other parts of the world, we’re infamous for passing on the vacation days we do get. Recent statistics show a mere 57% of us actually take advantage of our full vacation allotment. In France (where employers are required to give a minimum of thirty days vacation), almost 90% of workers use up their time. In 2010, our unspent vacation days added up to $67 billion in equivalent wages.

Money is tight. There’s too much going on at work right now. We might need extra time at the holidays. The kids are busy in school/activities/camps anyway. For many of us, there’s always a reason not to get away.

We pay a price, I think, as individuals and perhaps as a society for placing such little value on vacation. A good vacation, of course, has the power to melt away stress, fatigue, and frustration. It allows us to luxuriate in bold, intrepid idleness. Alternatively, a vacation can challenge us, push us in new directions. We see new places, meet new people, try different activities. We dare or just take the time to do things we wouldn’t in the course of “normal” life.

In the brief standstill of time away, the blur of the last months comes into focus: what’s happened in the family, what’s happened to us, how the kids have grown. A vacation gives us time to reconnect with our partners, children, and maybe old friends. We rediscover ourselves again – the lighthearted, adventurous, better selves that tend to get displaced in the demands of our regular routine.

As mentally restorative as vacations are, they do our bodies good as well. (I mean more than that tan from the beach of course.) A number of medical studies demonstrate the independent health-protective benefits of time away. Researchers followed more than 12,000 men ages 35 to 57 who were labeled high risk for heart disease. Over a nine year period, they found those who took yearly vacations showed a 21% “reduced risk of all-cause mortality” and a 32% reduced risk of cardiovascular related mortality – after accounting for factors like income, education, and other health factors.

Analysis of the Framingham Heart Study showed that women who vacationed very seldom (less than once every seven years) were approximately eight times more likely to experience a heart attack or receive a heart disease diagnosis than those who vacationed often (two or more times a year).

In less dire terms, other research showed that two to three days into a vacation subjects were obtaining an additional hour or more of quality sleep. In response, their reaction times improved more than 80% and continued to be 25% higher following their trips. More than half of vacationers in a related survey said their work stress was reduced between 10-25% by vacation time. Other research has highlighted increased happiness, improved mood, and diminished physical complaints (PDF) as a result of vacation time.

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