Summertime. And the living isn't easy. We are mired in a relentless recession, experiencing (too many of us first-hand) massive unemployment, mortgage defaults and foreclosures, and unprecedented financial strain. As temperatures soar and salaries shrink, our impulse may be to batten down the hatches and cut out anything "unnecessary." But please, make sure it's not your vacation.
That's right: the research is in and the experts have spoken. The consensus: based on the benefits it confers and the consequences of skipping it, vacation, often considered an indulgence, needs to be rethought as a basic right and a priority, just like saving for retirement, exercising, and getting a yearly physical. "Ironically," says Boulder psychotherapist Mary Kelly-Williams, who bases her observations on years of work with stressed-out remarrieds with kids, "vacations should be mandatory." Indeed, studies show that vacation is good for your cardiovascular health and your waistline, lowers your cortisol levels and your blood pressure, and may aid in recovery from diseases like cancer. It's clear that, especially in this moment of national stress overload, skipping vacation can actually put your physical, mental, and fiscal health at risk.
The famous Framingham Heart Study followed approximately 12,000 men ages 35 - 57 at risk of heart disease, for nine years. Researchers wanted to know if there were ways to improve the men's longevity. The participants were asked about a number of lifestyle topics, including vacation. "The more frequent the vacations, the longer the men lived," says researcher Karen Matthews of the University of Pittsburgh Body-Mind Center, who analyzed the data to assess the benefits of vacations. This held true even when controlling for variables like higher education and income (which are predictive of longer lifespan); the link between vacation and longevity, Matthews and others tell us, is undeniable.
As a follow up, State University of New York at Oswego researchers crunched the Framingham data yet again, and discovered that men who take vacations every year reduce their overall risk of death by about 20 percent, and their risk of death from heart disease by as much as 30 percent.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Mind-Body Center also surveyed nearly 1,400 subjects who had participated in four other studies on breast cancer and cardiovascular disease. They were asked how often they'd spent the previous month doing something they enjoyed. Leisure, including vacation, Matthews says, contributed to a more positive mindset and dramatically lower levels of clinical depression. And our mental health is a crucial part of our arsenal for fighting disease.
Even trading your office cubicle for a hike in the woods can help. Getting away to someplace green, surrounding yourself with natural beauty, can actually increase immune function, a series of studies recently found. How can this be? Certainly stress reduction has something to do with it. But as the Science Times recently reported, scientists believe that nature heals us with phytoncides, airborne chemicals emitted by plants that are good for what ails us. In one study, 280 people in Japan undertook a popular practice called "forest bathing" (Shinrin-yoku)-basically just enjoying a couple of consecutive days in the woods. Compared to participants who pounded the pavement for two days, those who hung out with plants and trees had lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rates, and lower blood pressure. And in a 2007 study, men who took two-hour walks in a forest for two days experienced a 50 percent spike in their level of disease-fighting killer cells. For women, the increase in white blood cells lasted a week when they were exposed to the phytoncides encountered in the forest.
Europeans have understood the benefits of leisure for a long time. In Great Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, for example, workers are guaranteed 20 vacation days per year by law. In the U.S., we get an average of 12 paltry days of paid leave per year. Even worse, the Institute for Work and Families recently found that less than half of U.S. employees take the full vacation days offered. Japan, the stingiest of industrialized nations when it comes to vacation time (workers typically get a week of vacation yearly) also has one of the world's highest suicide rates.
With the benefits of vacation, leisure, and escape to the great outdoors so obvious, what's stopping you? Maybe it's fear. "It's scary to take off from work for an extended period of time and leave your responsibilities for others to take over," acknowledges Manhattan psychotherapist Dr. Rachelle Katz, author of The Happy Stepmother. "But healing can occur more quickly when you take a sabbatical from work rather than by sticking to your schedule. Getting away from it all takes courage, and provides a fresh perspective that can reinvigorate your life. Self-care is never selfish, it's a sign of health and strength."
Or maybe it's money that's holding you back. In which case, it's not too late to start saving for your next vacation. Meanwhile, consider a "staycation"--but a real one, please. No catching up on chores or household projects, or falling into a rut of doing the same old same old. Check out. Go for a hike in the woods. Relax in your backyard in a hammock. Listen to a guided deep relaxation CD. Go out to a cafe and just sit, watching the people go by. Transform your home into a vacation-like experience in order to give yourself a break from routine, refresh your point of view, and improve your mental and physical health.
Next time: In Part 2 of "Gone Fishin': Why You Can't Afford to Skip Vacation," Marty Babits, LCSW and author of The Middle Ground, writes about the relaxation response, Winnicott's concept of un-integration, and your vacation.
Anahad O-Connor, "Really? Exposure to plants and parks can boost immunity," Science Times, New York Times, July 6, 2010.