Health benefits of taking a vacation (even during COVID-19)

By Liz Meszaros
Published August 13, 2020

Key Takeaways

On August 6, the US State Department lifted its advisory against international travel (probably because foreign countries are faring much better in safely controlling COVID-19 than the United States). The State Department, in conjunction with the CDC, continues to advise Americans to “exercise caution when traveling abroad due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.” 

But if you take the precautions, now is a great time to travel. Not only are there a lot of money-saving travel deals available but, more than ever, doctors need time to de-stress. And there has been a lot of stress lately. 

For physicians, getting away can be tough even in normal times, but it’s absolutely necessary and even backed by research. Physicians typically face more challenges than others do in taking vacations (the last few months bears that out). But, the stress and heavy workloads they shoulder make it all the more necessary to do so. Besides the coronavirus, physicians still face a number of burdens on a daily basis such as struggling with paperwork, patient demands and difficult patients, uncertainties in the face of new legislation, and unending battles with insurance companies. You need a break!

More and more studies have shown that vacations are good for your health—physically, mentally, and emotionally. But despite these findings, the vacation track record of Americans is remarkably dismal compared with other industrialized nations, even before COVID-19 struck. The United States has no mandated number of days off for employees, and roughly 25% of American workers get no paid vacation at all. Those who do receive paid time off only get about 10 days/year. But, over 55% of them don’t use them, according to the US Travel Association. In 2018, this amounted to 768 million unused vacation days—a 9% increase from the previous year. Of these unused vacation days, 236 million were forfeited.

This is a travesty, especially since taking vacation has been shown to have positive effects on your health. And, conversely, not taking vacation has been shown to be bad for your health.

Here’s a look at just some of the research-proven health benefits a vacation can offer.

Decreases risk of cardiovascular disease. Consider results from the Framingham Heart Study, in which researchers showed that men who do not take vacations were 30% more likely to have a heart attack and women were 50% more likely. Even after adjusting for health and lifestyle factors—like diabetes, income levels, obesity, and cigarette smoking—these results held firm. In another large, well-known, long-term study—the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (MRFIT) for the Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease—researchers followed over 12,000 men at high risk for coronary heart disease for 9 years. Those who did not take annual vacations were 21% more likely to die from any cause, and 32% more likely to die from heart disease.

And in The Helsinki Businessmen Study, researchers followed 2,741 executives and businessmen over 26 years to determine the link between vacation and later health outcomes. They found that shorter vacation time was associated with higher BMI, more coffee consumption, and worse self-rated health. More importantly, shorter annual vacations (≤ 21 days) were associated with higher mortality after 18 years. Researchers discovered that in older age, taking shorter vacations in midlife was tentatively associated with worse general health and higher predicted mortality.

Furthermore, in a longer follow-up to The Helsinki Businessmen Study that spanned 40 years, even when men improved their lifestyles—via exercise, improved diet, smoking cessation—or reached a healthy weight, mortality rates were still higher in those who took shorter or no annual vacations compared with those who did. In fact, men who took 3 weeks or less of annual vacation had a 37% increased risk of mortality compared with those who took vacations of more than 3 weeks.

Increases mental health. Vacations are also good for your mental health and well-being. They can reduce anxiety and stress, as well as improve mood. Just removing yourself from the everyday environments and activities you associate with stress is paramount to your good health. Consider that in a Canadian study of nearly 900 lawyers, vacations—even short ones—reduced depression and helped mitigate job stress. In a Japanese study, a short, 3-day vacation reduced participants’ perceived levels of stress and reduced cortisol levels. Notably, stress reduction was most significant in participants who were highly stressed.

Decreases depression. According to a study in 1,500 women in rural Wisconsin, those who vacationed less than once every 2 years were more likely to suffer from depression and have more stress than women who vacationed at least twice a year. Likewise, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Mind Body Center who surveyed about 1,400 people found that taking vacations, as a leisure activity, contributed to higher positive emotional levels and less depression.

Protects against metabolic syndrome. In a small study, researchers found a correlation between participants who used about 2 weeks of their paid vacation days and the incidence of metabolic syndrome. Specifically, as the number of vacations they took increased, the incidence of metabolic syndrome and its symptoms decreased. Further, they found that for each additional vacation taken, the risk for metabolic syndrome decreased by nearly 25%.

Increases productivity. Although it may initially sound counterintuitive, vacations improve your productivity. In a study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, professionals required to take time off from work were significantly more productive than those who spent more time working. Researchers at Ernst & Young reported similar results when they did an internal study of employees. They found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation taken, employees’ year-end performance ratings improved by 8%. And, in yet another study, participants reported that their regular tasks at work took less effort after a vacation. It’s all a wonderful circle: When you’re happier, you’re more productive. When you’re more productive, you’re happier. Simple!

Even short ones lessen stress

No one needs a study to prove that you are more relaxed when you return from a vacation. But, did you know that even a short vacation can improve your stress levels and feelings of well-being? Researchers from Germany conducted a randomized controlled trial and found that a short vacation (4 nights) had “large, positive, and immediate effects on perceived stress, recovery, strain, and well-being” in a group of 40 executives in middle management positions. What’s more, these benefits were still in effect at 30 and 45 days after the vacation.

Bottom line

With all of the evidence to back the health benefits of vacations, there’s no reason to skip yours this year—or any year. Think of vacations as not only an investment in your health and well-being, but also as part of what you need to do, as a physician, to maintain a healthy work-life balance. And that’s more necessary now than ever. 

So, make vacations a priority. Before you go, remember to plan well in advance, check travel restrictions, and call in reinforcements to take over your work while you’re gone. And when you arrive, you can unplug and relax, knowing that your patients and practice are in good hands. Enjoy every moment of your vacation, doctor. You work so hard and deserve a break—regularly!

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