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.
But what about sleep, which we take for granted and are so quick to sacrifice under the pressure of our workaday lives?Total sleep deprivation greatly impairs cognitive skills, leaving you in a state identical to drunkenness. But researchers are also finding that losing even one or two hours of sleep each night, over the course of two weeks, can render you as helpless as if you’d had no sleep at all. That means workaholics who swear by four to six hours a night are walking around with seriously diminished faculties. The scariest part?According to another recent study, we’re not even aware of what’s happening—the effects of sleep loss are that insidious.
Intrigued by the Air New Zealand findings, I set out to perform my own road test. With the help of Dr. Mark Rosekind, the president and chief scientist at Alertness Solutions, I re-created the study on a recent trip to Australia to visit my sister and her newborn daughter. Beginning a few days prior to my departure, I wore an Actiwatch—a mysterious little timepiece-like box that tracks sleeping patterns—on my wrist. (Not the most attractive of vacation accessories, I must admit.) Much to my sister’s annoyance, I also pulled out a PDA three times a day to take a five-minute vigilance test.
Dr. Rosekind’s analysis shows that my sleep time increased by an average of 50 minutes a night while away, and my cognitive abilities along with it. According to my performance tests, I was 80 percent more alert than when I was in the office. Most important, perhaps, I remained alert after I returned home and threw myself back into a busy week at work. My test scores were still 93 percent better than before my vacation—a fact that I’ll gladly share with my superiors when the time comes to put in my next vacation request.
But vacations aren’t the be-all and end-all panacea, as my case clearly demonstrates. On some evenings during my trips, after a long dinner and multiple glasses of wine (an activity that I don’t, ahem, engage in during my working life), I didn’t even have the heart to undertake a vigilance test, knowing that my results would be abysmal. And although I was getting more sleep, my average of six hours and 14 minutes was still well short of the recommended seven to nine hours per night. (For this, I suppose I can thank my early-rising new niece.) In short, it all depends on how you actually spend your vacation.
"In a world where everyone is moving too quickly, eating the wrong foods, and stressed, vacations are short-term Band-Aids that help you continue on," says Dr. Richard Carmona, the former U.S. surgeon general. "Americans need to learn how to work the vacation experience into their everyday lives." Now a vice-chairman of Canyon Ranch, Carmona has an interest in seeing people adopt the healthy behaviors they learn on vacation as long-term habits. That is, after all, the Canyon Ranch mission.
But the doctor is definitely onto something. A 2003 study from Tel Aviv University found that although vacations relieved stress and burnout among workers, the afterglow lasted only about three weeks, after which stress levels shot right up to their previous high. The solution?The researchers are mum, but I have one: another vacation.
New technologies help make traversing the globe easier on the body.
By Paul Bravmann
Imagine a plane with comfort features so advanced that the effects of jet lag—the bane of the long-distance traveler—are reduced to a minimum. Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner, scheduled to be delivered to carriers including Northwest Airlines, AeroMexico, Air Canada, Japan Airlines, and Singapore Airlines beginning in mid 2008, just might pull off that feat.
Constructed from state-of-the-art composites (in other words, carbon-fiber reinforced plastics), the Dreamliner’s fuselage allows for higher cabin pressure and humidity—environmental improvements that, according to Boeing’s extensive research, will lower the incidence of headaches, dizziness, and irritation of the throat and eyes associated with air travel. The climate of the cabin will be further enhanced by the use of a cutting-edge gaseous filtration system, a sort of "fine-toothed comb" that is able to purge the air of molecular contaminants.
Related upgrades include dynamic LED lighting that will transform the cabin ceiling into a soothing simulated sky, and new noise- and turbulence-control technologies designed to ease fatigue and motion sickness.
Is the Dreamliner the beginning of an era of more-tolerable air travel?Quite possibly. Airbus recently announced plans to construct the similar A350 XWB, which should take to the skies by 2013.
Many high-end hotels now offer yoga and Pilates classes, but for advanced students, these can be tedious and dull. Here, a few tips for finding something that’s up to your speed—with a chance to meet locals who share your interest.
By Hannah Wallace
Ask Your Current Instructor for a Recommendation
Private teachers, especially, should go out of their way to do research for you, says Magen Banwart, a yoga teacher at Manhattan’s Exhale Mindbodyspa. "If one of my clients is going to Mumbai, I’ll do the legwork for them," Banwart says.
Stick with Your Style, If Not Your Studio
There’s an official Web site for almost every style of yoga, and many have international directories of qualified teachers. If you practice Ashtanga, check out www.ashtanga.com; if you’re a Bikram devotee, find an authorized studio at www.bikramyoga.com. The Pilates Method Alliance lists certified Pilates instructors on its site, www.pilatesmethodalliance.org. And some established studios—such as Jivamukti and Exhale—have become chains, with outposts in multiple cities in the United States and abroad.
Yoga Journal’s list of yoga tours, on www.yogajournal.com, susses out the best classes in cities such as Bangkok, London, Paris, and Sydney. Skip the magazine’s worldwide directory, however. Though comprehensive, it’s not editorially vetted: any studio that pays $115 can sign on. You can also find good travel articles on the Web sites of Yoga + Joyful Living, formerly Yoga International at www.himalayaninstitute.org, and Pilates Style, at www.pilatesstyle.com.
If You Know Your Hotel Room Will Be Spacious, Pack a DVD
"Get the video by the most respected person in that field," Banwart advises. If you practice power yoga, buy Baron Baptiste’s DVD; if you love Vinyasa, buy Cyndi Lee’s. Not only can you then stick with your regular style and program, you won’t have to worry about squeezing a class into your busy schedule. You can always follow a routine from a book, too. Out this month: Bikini Boot Camp: Two Weeks to Your Ultimate Beach Body (Broadway Books; $17.95) by Melissa Perlman and Erica Gragg, founders of the yoga retreat Amansala, in Tulum, Mexico.
The $20 billion-a-year global medical-tourism market finally has a guidebook of its own. Aimed at the 150,000 North Americans and Europeans now combining health care with travel, Patients Beyond Borders: Everybody’s Guide to Affordable, World-Class Medical Tourism, by Josef Woodman (Health Travel Media; $22.95; www.patientsbeyondborders.com), released in February, provides actionable, on-the-ground advice for 22 top medical-tourism destinations in 12 countries. From hip replacements in India to Central American dental work, Brazilian tummy tucks to fertility treatments in South Africa, Patients Beyond Borders compares procedure costs and success rates and gives the rundown on international hospitals, clinics, and health travel agents. With medical tourism now growing at 15 percent annually and nations ranging from Israel to Indonesia swiftly realizing its potential, this tome couldn’t be more timely.