Going 'On Holiday' Can Keep the Doctor Away

Taking that vacation is actually good for your health.

Think you’re too busy to get away from work? You might be surprised to find that going on vacation – whether a weekend getaway or a weeks-long break – is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Scientific research has discovered what many of us intuitively know – what we really need is some time away from the workplace, wherever in the world we call home. What is it about going “on holiday” that boosts our well-being, relieves stress and helps us live fuller lives?

“We are energy machines. We have to replenish the energy we expend,” says Joe Robinson, the Santa Monica, California-based author of Work to Live and a work/life balance and productivity speaker and trainer. “We crave them psychologically because our brain neurons want two things more than anything else for long-term fulfillment: novelty and challenge. Vacations provide both in spades.”

And studies show they’re good for what (potentially may) ail us. Consider this: the long-running Framingham Heart Study from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Boston University found that men who didn’t take vacation for several years were 30 percent more likely to have heart attacks than those who did. The University of Pittsburgh’s Mind-Body Center surveyed nearly 1,400 people and discovered that leisure pursuits – which include vacations – “contributed to higher positive emotional levels and less depression,” not to mention lower blood pressure and smaller waistlines.

Researchers even have found that the anticipation of a getaway can be more satisfying than remembering it once you get home. Psychology and neuroscience Professor Dr. Leaf Van Boven at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Marketing Professor Dr. Laurence Ashworth of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, found that because future events are less certain than those in the past, merely looking forward to vacations “may be more arousing than retrospection about those events.”

For example, they write: “Because there are more ways that a future beach holiday might happen – more beaches one might visit, more sunsets one might see, more books one might read – than ways it did happen, people might experience more pleasure during anticipation of, than during retrospection about, beach holidays.”

We asked dr. Beth Mcquiston, a board-certified neurologist and registered dietitian who’s a medical director in Abbott’s diagnostics business, why rest and recharging are so vital — and how people can get the most out of their time away from work.

Q:  Why are we as humans wired to need vacations and holidays? Is there something in our brains that actually needs a break to rest and recover from our usual cognitive activities?

A: “When you start planning a vacation, even if you don’t take one, it can improve your frame of mind. An improved mood or mental ‘lift’ can start to kick in immediately. The ‘restoration process’ when you take vacation is also called ‘recovery’ – reversing the negative effects of working too much. There’s recovery through both the release from job demands and through engagement in self-chosen and pleasant activities. When you are constantly going and under pressure, stress hormones can spike, which can affect your health. Depending on the person, this may translate into more colds, headaches and getting sick more often. When you relax, sleep and eat properly, you help get your health back in balance.”

Q:  Are there actual health or brain benefits that come from disconnecting and stepping away from work and our usual routines?

A:  “There are many benefits. For example, relaxing may lower your cortisol or stress hormones. It is important to rest, refresh and decrease the chance of mental burnout. You want to power back up mentally and physically. Some research shows that connecting to what you enjoy and getting the proper nutrition, exercise and sleep can help optimize levels of serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps maintain mood balance) helps you feel good, and dopamine is part of your brain's reward center.”

Q:  Why does it seem that some of us get sick as soon as we finally go on vacation or take time off? What can we do to lessen those odds?

A:  “If you travel and attend events during peak cold flu season, be sure to wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your nose, rubbing your eyes or touching your mouth, as this is an easy way to pick up germs. Keep in mind that using hand sanitizer can help, but know that for some bugs like norovirus, frequent hand washing and avoiding people who may be sick are essential. In addition, depending on where you are traveling, you may need certain vaccinations ahead of time and may need to take certain meds with you. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider for any health recommendations prior to travel."

Q:  How long do those positive effects of going “on holiday” last? And do we benefit equally whether our vacations are long or short?

A: “A lot of the research shows the benefits may last up to three to four weeks but then may fade out. The effects of a short vacation of four to five days may be just as powerful as a longer vacation. Depending on the person, it may be even more beneficial to schedule several short vacations as opposed to one long vacation. Also, research shows that appropriate physical activity during these vacations may contribute even more to a positive experience.”

Q:  From a psychological perspective, how does taking time off and disconnecting help us live more fully in general?

A:  “Ideally, you could remove yourself from thoughts of work. That’s where a short vacation may be more beneficial, because on a longer one you’re always checking in. Nonetheless, it doesn't appear to be an all-or-nothing effect. If you need to check in, then do so. While the mental boost you may get from completely disengaging may be a bit higher than if you follow up on a few things, it is still better than not going at all."

Boost the Benefits of Being Away

Assuming that you’ll actually take that vacation time you’ve planned, how do you make the most of it? A few tips from Work to Liveauthor Joe Robinson and Abbott’s Dr. Beth McQuiston:

  1. Savor your sleep. “It’s the No. 1 thing everyone can do,” McQuiston says. “It can potentially decrease your cortisol levels, elevate your mood and have physical effects such as improved wound healing. Also, getting enough sleep may actually help you regulate your weight better. Practice ‘good sleep hygiene’ – cut off caffeine several hours before bed, keep electronic distractions out of your bedroom and put your smartphone down a few hours before bed, as all these things can interrupt your circadian rhythms.”
  2. Move your body. Says McQuiston: “Exercise is still important. People benefit from being physically active and deriving pleasure from their vacation activities. Talk with your healthcare provider and choose your favorite exercise. Go swimming or do whatever it is you enjoy."  A 2011 study cited in Psychology & Health found the “increase in health and wellness during vacation will be larger for employees who spend more time on physical activities” when they’re away.
  3. Make planning part of the fun. “Give yourself something to look forward to,” says Robinson. “Plan your trip early – the beginning of the year. Figure out where you want to go and book it. Lock it in for you and the company.”
  4. Restore those social connections. No need to spend every waking moment while on holiday with others, but we humans are social creatures. Make time for those family members and friends whose presence recharges and refreshes you. "Make time to put your cell phones away and have a real conversation with your loved ones,” says McQuiston. “Participate in something everyone likes, such as games and sports. Be sure to connect and enjoy the experience. Be in the moment, not browsing the Internet."
  5. Don’t turn vacation into work. It’s not about “results,” insists Robinson. “Vacations are about the experience, not how many things you saw. Experiences make us happier than material things, studies show. Leave the work mind, the guilt mind, the control mind at home.”