Published: August 17, 2009
A lot of towns and cities in the United States virtually empty out come August. Traffic almost becomes manageable as the local denizens decamp for the beach, the mountains or the heartlands. The escape from toil may be just the breather the body needs to restore itself.
Whether you spend your free moments playing sports, socializing with friends or reading quietly, research suggests that the more of it there is, the better you feel and the healthier you are.
"It is important to engage in multiple leisure activities, both as a way to enjoy life more, but also to potentially have a benefit on health and be a stress reliever," says Karen Matthews of the University of Pittsburgh's Mind-Body Center.
Researchers from the center surveyed 1,399 participants who'd been recruited for four other studies on breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and other conditions. They were asked how often they'd spent the previous month doing something they enjoyed. Leisure, including vacation, Matthews says, contributed to more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions and depression.
People who had more leisure activities "reported more life satisfaction, finding more meaning in life," says Matthews. "They tended to be more religious [and] spiritual in orientation. They reported having a lot of support from friends and having a large network of friends and family."
Among the benefits to be found from engaging in multiple activities are lower blood pressure, lower stress hormones and smaller waists.
Europeans embrace this idea almost religiously. Vacations are enshrined in law. In countries like Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, employers are required to provide up to 20 days of paid leave. Americans, on the other hand, get an average of 12 days every year. A study conducted by the Families and Work Institute found that less than half of U.S. employees take the full vacation.
Jessica de Bloom studies the effects of vacation on stress, recovery and work motivation at the Radboud University in the Netherlands. Having just spent three weeks in Croatia, on vacation herself, she was feeling just fine. But her research found that for most people, the overall feeling of well-being that comes after a vacation quickly vanishes. She's done an analysis of research conducted in Europe, Israel and the United States that assesses how people feel before, during and after a vacation. It was published in the Journal of Occupational Health.
"People felt healthier during vacation. They had a better mood," de Bloom says. "They were less tense. And they had a higher level of energy, and they were more satisfied with their life."
What struck de Bloom is that when people were questioned a day or two after they returned, the positive effects had faded. But that doesn't mean that one should discount the health benefits of a vacation, de Bloom says.
"It would be a bit like asking, 'Why do we sleep despite the fact that we get tired again?' "
Health deteriorates over time if we don't take a break from work, research concludes.
Probably the best evidence of the effects of vacations can be found in the Framingham Heart Study, which scientists have been plumbing for years to understand what contributes to our well-being. More than 12,000 men who were at risk of heart disease were followed over nine years to see if there were ways to improve their longevity. Among the questions they were asked annually was about vacations.
"The more frequent the vacations, the longer the men lived," says Matthews, who analyzed the data to assess the benefits of vacations.
The men who took vacations tended to be better educated and have a higher income. These are people who tend to be healthier and live longer anyway. It's also possible that sick people don't enjoy taking vacations. But Matthews says the study took that into account, and she's confident that there are health benefits to vacationing.
While vacations would probably benefit us all, it appears that people who were healthier to begin with, who exercise and who don't smoke are also the people most likely to take frequent vacations. [Copyright 2013 NPR]
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Today in Your Health: recharging your batteries. Health experts say vacation is not a luxury. Our health depends on it. And the evidence is mounting that a sound mind and body require taking time away from work and investing in leisure. NPR's Brenda Wilson looks at what science says about the effect of vacation on health.
BRENDA WILSON: The study that is cited time and time again on the benefits of health and vacations was actually not done to examine vacationing, but longevity. It involved more than 12,000 men who were recruited for the Framingham Heart Study that has for years been a gold mine of data for scientists. Karen Matthews, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says it's useful because the men in the study were very well characterized.
Professor KAREN MATTHEWS (University of Pittsburgh): So they were high risk, but so far, no known disease. And so some of them, indeed, were smokers. Some of them were hypertensive or had high blood pressure. Some of them had high cholesterol levels and were, in fact, elevated in health risk.
WILSON: They were followed over nine years. Among a series of things checked annually was whether they'd been on a vacation in the previous year.
Prof. MATTHEWS: And in the analysis that we did, we found that the more frequent vacations, the longer the men lived.
WILSON: The men who took vacations tended to be better educated and have a higher income. These are people who tend to be healthier and live longer, anyway. It's also possible that sicker people don't take as many vacations as healthy people. But Matthews says the study took that into account, and she's confident that there still are health benefits to vacationing.
Researchers in other countries have also done studies on vacationing and health. The United States is the only country in the industrial world where paid vacations are not required by law. Most people in the U.S. do get paid leave, on average in this country about 12 days. Compare that to the other economic powerhouses where paid leave is required by law. Germany and the United Kingdom get 20 days. In France, employers are required to provide 30 days of paid leave.
Dutch researcher Jessica de Bloom of the Radboud University in the Netherlands analyzed seven vacation studies done in Europe, the U.S. and Israel. All of them measured the effects of vacations before, during and afterwards. De Bloom's findings were published in the Journal of Occupational Health.
Ms. JESSICA DE BLOOM (Radboud University): People felt healthier during vacation. They had a better mood. They were less tense, and they had a higher level of energy and they were more satisfied with their life.
WILSON: And how long did that last? Do you know?
Ms. DE BLOOM: It was gone immediately when you return home.
WILSON: A day or two later upon return, energy levels had dropped, for example. But de Bloom says the benefits of vacation should not be discounted, because the obvious effects quickly disappear.
Ms. DE BLOOM: It would be a bit like asking why should we sleep, despite the fact that we get tired again. We think that health deteriorates across time if we would not go on vacation.
WILSON: Leisure at home had benefits, too. The University of Pittsburgh's Karen Matthews, in a separate study on the effects of leisure, found that people who had lots of leisure activities, including vacation, reported positive feelings and were healthier.
Prof. MATTHEWS: People who engaged in more frequent, multiple activities tended to be people who reported more positive emotions. They reported fewer negative emotions, depression. They reported more life satisfaction, finding more meaning in life. They tended to be more religious, spiritual in orientation. They reported having a lot of support from friends and family.
WILSON: And they had lower blood pressure, lower stress hormones, smaller waists, were thinner and were more physically active. In other words, they were altogether more healthy.
Brenda Wilson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.