I consider myself a fairly healthy person. After much prodding by friends and family, I’ve kicked my cigarette habit. Thanks to a series of New Year’s resolutions, I’ve started hitting the gym, even lifting weights on occasion. I pay attention to carbohydrates and trans fats, and drink lots of water. But sometimes these routines feel like chores. Why can’t staying healthy be as relaxing and inviting as, say, taking a vacation?
Maybe it can, according to the "Vacation Gap" study sponsored by Air New Zealand. The airline partnered with Alertness Solutions, a "fatigue management consultancy" that works to keep pilots at the top of their game, to examine the psychological and physiological effects of vacations. The study is part of an effort to convince Americans to embrace vacationing (a full 33 percent of us end up giving back unused days at the end of the year, according to Expedia.com’s annual "Vacation Deprivation" survey). Researchers monitored people taking trips that were 7 to 20 days long. Using techniques developed by NASA, they tracked the travelers’ sleep patterns, checked their alertness with a series of regularly scheduled vigilance tests, and had them keep a daily diary of their moods and sense of well-being—before, during, and after their vacations.
The psychological results of the study were fairly predictable: people reported feeling healthier, happier, and better rested while on vacation. More interestingly, their physiological data supported these impressions, and the benefits of travel extended past the end of their vacations. The travelers slept about an hour longer each night on the road than they did at home, and enjoyed three times as much deep, rejuvenating sleep following their vacations as they did before. This improvement carried over to the vigilance tests too: after they returned, the subjects’ performance was 25 percent better than it was pre-departure. Granted, the study’s sample size was small (only 10 subjects), but the conclusion—that vacationing may make you more alert, attentive, and productive—was enough to perk up this editor’s ears.
This is not the first time a link has been discerned between days spent away from work and improved health. Numerous medical studies have documented that vacations help pull people back from chronic stress—which can cause insomnia (from adrenaline-fueled days), decreased cognitive functioning, and even cardiovascular disease—and eventual burnout. In our BlackBerry-addicted, hyperefficient working lives, stress is almost a given. Vacations—preferably long ones, according to some researchers—offer necessary relief.
There is also intriguing evidence that vacations can prevent heart failure. A nine-year study conducted by the State University of New York, at Oswego, and the University of Pittsburgh found that middle-aged men who did not consistently take annual vacations were 20 percent more likely to have a nonfatal heart event and 35 percent more likely to die from coronary disease. Women are also at risk. Researchers working with the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed the residents of a Massachusetts town for decades, found that women who took only infrequent vacations over a 20-year period had a significantly higher risk of developing coronary disease than their counterparts who vacationed regularly.
Such studies have inspired the rise of a vocal group of vacation proselytizers, including Joe Robinson, a Santa Monica-based life coach and the author of Work to Live. "Vacations are as important to your health as exercise and watching cholesterol," says Robinson, who believes the benefits of our breaks from work go well beyond removing people from the source of stress. "Travel helps build psychological and mental muscle," he explains, by providing the novelty and challenge of unfamiliar activities and situations.