July 21, 2011
Lounging. Hiking. Traveling. Gardening. Napping. No matter how you like to spend your free time, studies show you could use more of it.
And if we lived in Europe, we would have more of it. In fact, many countries there have laws that say workers must have at least 20 days of paid vacation each year. And some countries like France offer more than 30 days per year.
Meanwhile, the average paid vacation in America is 12 days. And the average American doesn't even use half of those.
So why should we take time off? Research says it's important to our health, especially over the long term. From weight control to cardiovascular disease (conditions of the heart, veins, and arteries), studies show that people who take more breaks from work live longer, healthier lives. They tend to be mentally sharper and happier, too.
Here's one example: The University of Pittsburgh's Mind-Body Center asked 1,399 people how much time they'd spent in the month before the study doing things they enjoyed. People who'd spent more time relaxing said they were happier with life. They felt their lives had meaning. They also had bigger networks of family and friends, lower blood pressure, lower stress levels, and fewer weight problems.
A different study, this one a nine-year study of 12,000 men at risk for heart disease, also supports more vacation time. Karen Matthews of the University of Pittsburgh's Mind-Body Center says, "The more frequent the vacations, the longer the men lived." In fact, men who didn't take yearly vacations had a 21% higher risk of death from all causes, and a 32% higher risk of death by heart attack.
A 2008 New York Times article says that even the famous Framingham Heart Study shows people need their vacation time.
Since 1948, the Framingham Heart Study has followed three generations of people living in Framingham, Massachusetts. Over the years, thousands of people have been interviewed and tested. Among other things, the study's looking for the lifestyle and health patterns that lead to cardiovascular disease. Along the way, it's created lots of helpful health information on all kinds of subjects. For example, Elaine Eaker, a private researcher, collected 20 years of interview answers from women in the Framingham Study about how often they took vacations. Eaker's report shows that women who took at least two vacations a year were eight times less likely to get coronary disease than women who vacationed only once every six years or so.
"It shows how the body reacts to a lifestyle of stress," Eaker said. "This is real evidence that vacations are important to your physical health."
A 2006 study by Air New Zealand looked at vacations in other ways. People in this study said that after two to three days on vacation they were getting an extra hour of good-quality sleep each night. And their reaction times were 80% better, too.
And sorry, taking along your smartphone or hopping online every few hours when you're away from work doesn't count. A study by Tel Aviv University says that people who "stay connected" to the office while on vacation don't get the same benefits as those who "pull the plug." They're also more likely to burn out over the course of their careers.
Of course, most of us can only work with the vacation time we've got. But when it comes to mental, physical, and emotional health, you really should make the most of it. So use what vacation time you have. And then while you're away from work, unplug the phone, forget your e-mail password, and relax. You'll be better off for it in more ways than one.
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