Vacation is good for your health


As winter drags on in the PNW and your medical columnist returns from vacation, I decided to make this week’s health topic just that. I love vacations and as it turns out, they are good for our health!  

I came home refreshed (OK, what’s not to love about the Caribbean?), grateful to return to longer days, the first few sunny with signs of spring popping up everywhere. Winter vacations to places that are warm make the rainy days ahead easier to take until the 4th of July.  I learned this years ago thanks to my parents’ vision for their lives. They ‘conveniently’ moved to Florida so I could make my annual visits from the PNW in the doldrums of winter.  

Escaping into the warmth attracts many of us. It was Florida for my parents, hailing from the Northeast. Those in our midst more often choose the Southwest and Mexico. Seemingly, everywhere I go to find warmth in winter, I find Canadians. Our neighbors of the higher latitudes regularly travel south for a break from the cold.

When practicing medicine, I advocated for vacations for my patients. I was the kind of doctor who wrote prescriptions for more than drugs from the pharmacy. I wrote for pets, exercise, sleep schedules, and vacations. They were good for me to recharge, so I assumed they were good for everyone.

Assumptions are not good enough for this column, so I searched online for research on the benefits of vacations. Turns out there is some research, but not much. No study I could find looked at specific destinations such as warmth, so that must remain in the realm of assumed benefit (try it, you might love it).

According to the Pew Research Center, 46% of Americans who get PTO don’t use all of it.  If you are one of them, I am going to show why it is in your interest to change that.

Studies show that vacations are good for heart health, prevent metabolic syndrome, improve sleep, reduce and enhance recovery from stress, and may lead to long-term positive health behavior changes.  Not only are vacations good experiences and fun, but they also contribute to physical health benefits and protection in the long run!

Stacation: "a vacation spent in one's home country rather than abroad, or one spent at home and involving day trips to local attractions." A mother and son enjoying an indoor picnic to relax.
Stacation: "a vacation spent in one's home country rather than abroad, or one spent at home and involving day trips to local attractions." A mother …

Here’s what the research shows:

1) Vacation frequency reduces the risk for metabolic syndrome:

Bryce Hruska, Sarah D. Pressman, Kestutis Bendinskas & Brooks B. Gump (2020) Vacation frequency is associated with metabolic syndrome and symptoms, Psychology & Health, 35:1, 1-15, DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2019.1628962

Metabolic syndrome is a clustering of at least three of the five medical conditions: abdominal obesity (belly fat), high blood pressure, high blood sugar (higher than normal but not diagnostic of diabetes), high serum triglycerides, and low serum high-density lipoprotein. Metabolic syndrome is associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease (blocked arteries leading to strokes and heart attacks) and type 2 diabetes. This is no rare condition. It affects 1/3 of US adults.

In this US study of 63 workers, researchers found that participants used ~2 weeks of their PTO.  The higher the number of vacations (rather than their duration), the more metabolic syndrome signs decreased. In fact, the risk for metabolic syndrome decreased by one quarter with each additional vacation!

2) Even short vacations improve stress levels and well-being:

Blank C, Gatterer K, Leichtfried V, et al. Short vacation improves stress-level and well-being in German-speaking middle-managers-a randomized controlled trialInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(1):130. doi:10.3390/ijerph15010130

This study from Austria set out to see if shorter vacations had equivalent benefits to longer vacations. Previously, one-week vacations had been shown to bring positive health effects that tend to wane within days to a month of returning to work.

These researchers studied 40 middle managers (a position known to be high-stress) on a 4-day vacation. There were two groups: one that stayed in a 4-star hotel (in the Alps) or at home with no contact with work. The researchers looked at stress, recovery, strain, and general well-being before, during, and up to 45 days after the time off. In the hotel, each participant was required to take part in one session of physical activity (Nordic walking or swimming) and one of active recovery (yoga or Qui-Gong) during their time. Those at home were advised to partake in what they normally do during their spare time.

The results are…. drumroll…well-being increased, strain and perceived stress decreased in both groups. More surprising and exciting was that recovery improvement was still seen above baseline at 30 days post-vacation while well-being and strain remained improved for 45 days!

They concluded that short vacations might be a reasonable choice to buffer daily stressors at work, and it appears that it may not be necessary to leave home to gain benefits. Good news for the budget.

3) One-week vacations improve stress and result in long-term healthy lifestyle improvement

Hübner, M., Lechleitner, P. & Neumayr, G. Effects of a one-week vacation with various activity programs on well-being, heart rate variability, and sleep quality in healthy vacationers—an open comparative study. BMC Public Health 22, 2435 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-022-14838-7

This is another study from Austria, with the research supported by the East Tyrolean Government, Tourism Board, and hotels.  

These researchers took a small group of 52 ‘untrained vacationers’ in their mid-50s and assigned them to 2 different exercise groups for their vacation:  14 hours of e-biking or walking (aerobic exercise) or 33 hours of golf in the week.

Both groups benefited across the board. Perceived stress was significantly decreased when measuring dejection, irritability, tiredness, and subjective malaise. ‘Recovery profiles’ measured by feeling satisfied, happier, more relaxed, and rested were improved by >20%.

If that isn’t good enough news, even better, they found that 2 years later, 85% of the participants experienced positive long-term effects in lifestyle modification, diet, physical activity, and the ability to relax.

Maybe you must experience the benefit once to be inspired to continue!

The Singapore Botanic Gardens
The Singapore Botanic Gardens

4) How Long a Vacation Is Ideal to Gain the Benefits?

Ferguson, T., Curtis, R., Fraysse, F. et al. How do 24-h movement behaviours change during and after vacation? A cohort study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 20, 24 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-023-01416-2

Australian researchers looked at how activity levels varied on vacations of different types and lengths. For all vacation types, sleep duration increased, and participants were less sedentary and more active. Not surprisingly, the highest activity levels occurred on outdoor vacations, though everyone was more active on vacation.

They also found that the most positive changes toward healthier behavior occur on a 4-day to 2-week time off.

I particularly appreciated the author’s point that vacations offer a break from one’s usual responsibilities and, thus, greater freedom in time allocation. In the case of vacations, having the time to do what one enjoys.

Thus, here is my prescription list for how to make the most of your PTO and vacations to gain the greatest health benefit (while having joy and fun too):

  • Use all your PTO allocated for vacation.
  • Take at least 4 days, a week or longer - these are all beneficial. If you don’t have enough PTO or cannot take a longer time off, take 2 PTO days around a weekend and enjoy 4 days away. Then do it again and reduce your risk of metabolic syndrome by 25%.
  • Repeated vacations are best – it’s how often you take a break rather than the total number of days that offer the best health benefits and stress recovery.
  • Leave the work and computer behind! Let your staff know you are going ‘on vacation’ and that you will not be taking calls or checking email.
  • Have a staycation or go away, both are good for you. I cannot relax as well staying home. A change of scenery helps me detach from all the things I see at home ‘to do.’ If that is true for you, get away.
  • Be active on vacation. The research shows your time off will be even more restorative if you are. It probably doesn’t matter what you do to be active – just be active doing something you like.
  • Above all, do what you enjoy and make the time away something to look forward to. It doesn’t have to be expensive or luxurious to be restorative.

Finally, few inspirational quotes:

“All you’ve got to do is decide to go and the hardest part is over,” Tony Wheeler.

“It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you, “F.  Scott Fitzgerald.

“Do not wait until you are dying to go on vacation. I think if I had to give you one piece of advice that would be it. We put things off. We do not mean to, but we do. We carry around the assumption that there is plenty of time to do whatever needs to be done,” Marty Cauley.


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