One of the most challenging aspects adulthood is the realization that no one can balance your life for you. The work required to keep ourselves physically and mentally healthy, especially as we age, is significant. Those who get stuck in a trap of poor self-care are often overwhelmed by the time and effort it takes to maintain consistently good health habits. The remedy for this dilemma is to realize that while some lifestyles may be supportive of healthy self care (or not), we are, each and every one of us, ultimately alone with our daily decisions about our physical and mental health.
Take for example, summer vacations. Research studies show that based on the benefits it provides and the consequences of skipping it, good self-care habits such as taking a summer vacation should be thought of as a necessity, just like saving for retirement, exercising, and yearly visits to the doctor and dentist. Vacation is good for your cardiovascular health, maintaining a healthy weight, lowering your cortisol (stress) levels and blood pressure, and can aid in recovery from deadly diseases like cancer. It’s becoming increasingly clear that skipping vacation can actually put your physical, mental, and ability to function in your profession 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 health and 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).
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 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.
The reality is that many people need more than just a week or two getaway to maintain the health benefits of vacation. Trading in your office space for some place green and surrounding yourself with nature can actually increase immune function, as shown in a series of recent studies. The New York Times Science section 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 days in the forest. Compared to participants who pounded the pavement for two days, those who spent time surrounded by 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 long understood the benefits of leisure 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 meager days of paid vacation per year. The Institute for Work and Families recently found that less than half of U.S. employees actually take the full vacation days offered to them. 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.
For many people, money is a major reason cited for skipping vacation. In this case, consider a “staycation”–but a real one, please. No catching up on chores, tedious to-do lists, household projects, or falling into a rut of television and couch time. Go outdoors and spend time in natural surroundings. Relax in a local park, farmer’s markets, or shoreline/bodies of water. Listen to your favorite music or a guided deep relaxation CD. Find out free entrance days in museums, visit town squares and people watch. Take time and care in selecting your favorite foods that leave you feeling satisfied but not guilty. Spend time with positive people. Get creative and find ways to transform your home into a vacation-like experience in order to give yourself a break from routine, rejuvenate your spirit, and improve your mental and physical health.