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Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D. Headshot

Want to Stay Healthy? Go Ahead and Take a Vacation

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You're buried in work at the office and your to-do list at home is longer than a Tolstoy novel. Add in the inconvenience of flying anywhere these days or the high price of gas for a road trip and taking a vacation may seem like one big bother. If you want to stay healthy and well, it may surprise you that a summer break may just be what you need -- and what this doctor is recommending.

Living in Los Angeles, with our perennially gridlocked freeways, 10 percent unemployment rate and high cost of living is in a word, stressful. And stress takes a toll on both our mental and physical well-being. It can make us irritable, tired and unfocused; hinder the body's ability to fight infection; and lead to unhealthy behavior, like loading up on fatty foods, consuming too much alcohol and smoking.

So as the thermometer climbs to triple digits this month, opt out of the hamster wheel and get out of town. Vacations can spark creativity, offer a fresh perspective for problem solving, improve relationships and increase productivity. It may even save your life.

Stave off a heart attack

In a study of 13,000 middle-aged men at risk for heart disease, those who skipped vacations for five consecutive years were found to be 30 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who took at least one week off each year. Even missing one year's vacation was associated with a higher risk of heart disease.

A separate study, tapping information from the Framingham Heart Study, found vacation deprivation may be equally hazardous for women. Researchers looked at 20 years worth of questionnaires given to 749 women. Their finding: Women who took a vacation once every six years or less were almost eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack than those who took at least two vacations a year.

Locale and length of stay are not important. An exotic holiday abroad or a camping trip just up the coast can help you recharge. A study conducted among 1,500 women in rural Wisconsin found that those who take vacations twice a year or more were less likely to become tense, depressed or tired than those who took vacations once every two years. In addition, the odds of marital satisfaction decreased as the frequency of vacations decreased.

Similarly, a Canadian study of almost 900 lawyers concluded that "active" leisure pursuits (such as golf) and taking vacations helped alleviate job stress, whereas passive leisure activities did not.

Another bonus: If you've been trying to curb those late-night binges or stop biting your nails, a vacation is one of the most-successful places to change habits because all your old cues and all rewards aren't there anymore. Therefore, you have an ability to create a new pattern and hopefully take it home with you.

America: the no vacation nation

Packed yet? If you're European, chances are you left weeks ago. In other countries going on holiday is standard practice for maintaining health, family life and productivity. Guilt-ridden Americans, however, consider vacations a luxury. In fact, we are the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation. By law, European countries get at least 20 days of paid vacation per year; some receive as many as 30. Australia and New Zealand each require employers to give at least 20 vacation days per year; Canada and Japan mandate at least 10 paid days off.

What's more, many of us don't even take all of those that we get. Last year employed Americans earned 14 vacation days but only took 12, according to a survey conducted by Expedia.com. One in three Americans also said they did not take a vacation because they could not afford to. However, almost 50 percent of American workers in the survey describe their financial situation as "solid" or "good." Brazilian respondents, by contrast, were less likely to see money as a vacation obstacle and instead said a "lack of planning" was their top reason. This underscores the idea that we Americans view vacations as luxuries.

Of course, it's hard not to do so nowadays when so many are just relieved to be working and don't want to look dispensable in the boss's view. But, enlightened employers realize that vacations benefit both those who work for them and their own bottom lines. Overworked employees are a financial drain, perpetuating higher health care costs, absenteeism, high turnover, sluggish performance and on-the-job errors.

Jancoa, a Cincinnati janitorial service firm, for example, decreased its employee turnover from 360 percent to 60 percent while simultaneously increasing its productivity with the addition of a week of vacation. The Chicago office of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the worldwide accounting firm, once dedicated an entire issue of its in-house newsletter to the importance of taking a vacation, pointing out that vacations enable employees to return to work with a strong focus and energy.

Leave work at the office

That is unless you are one of those who compulsively check their emails and text clients while sunning in the Caribbean. Not only does research show this behavior is counterproductive, it also is unlikely to go over well with you travel companions.

Having the opportunity to unplug from electronics in itself is a good reason to take a vacation. In a recent study, heart rate monitors were attached to 13 people using a computer as they worked in an office setting. The monitors measured the study participants' heart rates. Software sensors also monitored the frequency with which participants switched between windows on their computer. The researchers found that participants' heart rates accelerated and were in a constant "high alert" mode when they were provided access to checking email and that they changed screens 37 times an hour, on average. By contrast, when the study participants were cut off from their email for five days, their heart rates were more varied and they only changed the screens an average of 18 times an hour.

Moreover, the "working vacation" really is an oxymoron. Research shows a direct correlation between the number of hours employees work during their vacation and the level of health and wellness they feel on the day of return and the third day after returning home.

Besides, vacation bliss wears off soon enough. While the long-range health benefits of vacations are evident, that direct happiness derived from getting away might be shorter-lived than your tan. According to researchers from the Netherlands, most people gain the most pleasure -- an eight-week positive mood increase -- from planning their trip, but the blissful feeling of having gotten away generally returns to baseline almost immediately after they return.

Other aspects of vacation joy can last forever. Researchers from the University of Colorado and Cornell University have run surveys asking people to rate the happiness gained from past purchases they made. Consistently, most people answered that they were happier having spent money on an experience such as theater tickets or a vacation than material possessions. Why? Researchers speculate it's because a show or vacation usually is shared with others, with whom we can reminisce about an experience. Experiences are a kind of social glue that provides us with stories, conversations and laughs that a pair of diamond earrings or flat-screen TV simply can't.

That opportunity to connect is also what makes family vacations unique and special. Most of us hate how squeezed we feel for quality family time. By providing a shared experience, family vacations build shared attitudes, help to make members think in terms of "we" instead of "I" and "you" and play a lasting role in building communications and solidarity. Whether you pack up the minivan and head for a long weekend in the mountains or jet across the continent to for a Paris holiday, ensure everyone in the clan unhooks the ear buds and turns off the iPods. It doesn't matter where go, only that you are fully there.

More on smoking, lung cancer

These concluding paragraphs of my last post on smoking and lung cancer inadvertently were omitted and I know some readers may wish to see them because they address some questions raised in the comments:

Smoking is not the only culprit when it comes to lung cancer. Researchers have identified many other causes. Chief among these is exposure to radon, an odorless and radioactive gas that occurs naturally in soil and can enter homes and buildings through small gaps or cracks. One out of every 15 homes in the U.S. has a radon problem. Other causes include asbestos, air pollutions and industrial materials such as chromium or petroleum products. Genetics also play a role; a family history of lung cancer may suggest a greater likelihood of developing the disease. And those who get it tend to be older than 65 when they are diagnosed.

Unfortunately, too many patients learn of their lung cancers too late. Part of the reason has to do with the nature of the disease. Early stage lung cancer often does not cause symptoms. And as the disease progresses, many of its symptoms -- including chest pain, fatigue, weight loss, shortness of breath, a nagging cough, a hoarse voice or pneumonia -- mirror signs of other maladies. The approach to diagnosing the disease presents another challenge. There is no generally accepted screening test. Doctors have studied various methods, including chest X-rays, CT scans and tests of sputum (mucus brought up from the lungs by coughing). One recent study suggests that CT scan screening of people at high risk for lung cancer lowers the number of deaths from lung cancer, but this research is fraught with uncertainty because of a high false-positive rate, meaning benign spots might result in extensive and expensive workups, sometimes with ensuing complications. It's important to speak with your doctor about the risks and benefits of testing, and what approach may best suit your individual needs.

There is good news amid this seemingly bleak picture: As fewer adults smoke, the incidence of lung cancer is dropping along with death rates for the disease. This trend has been most pronounced for men, who smoke the most of the two genders, over the last two decades. Women have begun to see a slight decrease in death rates over the last decade. Health experts say that kicking the habit can provide immediate health benefits by lowering blood pressure and heart rates, reducing carbon monoxide levels in the blood and improving lung function. People who quit smoking say that food tastes better and their sense of smell improves.

The U.S. Surgeon General, physicians and other health authorities emphasize that avoiding cigarettes or quitting the habit substantially reduces the risks of cancer, heart disease and other conditions. And the earlier you quit, the longer you are likely to live. One study found, for example, that people who tossed their cigarettes at about age 50 reduced their risk of dying prematurely by 50 percent compared to others who continued smoking. The risk of developing cancer and dying early depends on how long you have smoked, when you started, how many cigarettes you consumed each day and other factors. The point here is that it's never too late to toss your cigarettes, cigar or pipe. I often wonder what Don Draper the ad man would have thought about that message as he lit one cigarette after another. Would it have given him pause as he inhaled deeply and blew those gray billows of smoke into the faces of his coworkers, his wife and friends? I would certainly hope so.