Heart Health

Take a Vacation for Your Heart’s Sake

Are you a vacation slacker, someone who for one reason or another leaves precious, unused personal time on the table at the end of the year?

If you are, and you think you’re an outlier—think again. A May 2018 survey of 1,200 full-time U.S. employees found that 53 percent of those polled failed to use all of their paid vacation time the year before. In fact, 21 percent of the respondents still had more than five vacation days left by year’s end.

A large 2017 online survey of more than 2,200 adults from the online career website Glassdoor also found that, on average, employees who get paid time off as a job-related benefit are only using slightly more than half of these days.

These surveys also provide some clues that could help explain why some employees forfeit a good percentage of their vacation time. Researchers found that many people worry about falling behind or work piling up while they are away. What they may not realize, however, is that not taking vacations could be affecting their health.

Time off is linked to a slew of benefits, including better sleep and improved mental health. There’s also mounting evidence that getting away can help protect your heart.

Vacations linked to heart-health

Time off could help reduce the risk for metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health woes—including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess belly fat and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels—that raise the risk for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

In a small study published in June 2019 in Psychology and Health, researchers examined the health and vacation habits of more than 60 full time workers (mostly women) who received paid time off. Over the course of a year, the participants used about two weeks of their vacation time. The researchers found that those who vacationed more frequently were less likely to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome. Notably, the risk went down by a quarter with each additional vacation taken.

It’s important to note that this was a retrospective study that looked backwards to assess the workers’ risk for metabolic syndrome. Larger, prospective studies—which monitor outcomes as they occur over time—are needed.

These findings do, however, build on one of the most well-known studies on the subject, the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention trial, published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2000. The study followed more than 12,000 middle-aged men at high risk for heart disease for nine years and found that those who took more yearly vacations were less likely to die from any cause, including heart attacks and other heart problems.

Observational studies like these don’t show a clear cause-and-effect relationship. What they demonstrate are associations, explains Jorge Montilla, MD, a cardiologist at Kendall Regional Medical Center in Miami, Florida. Meanwhile, there could be more to the picture than just the vacation, he points out. It’s possible that people who are able to get away regularly are more financially stable or have good overall job security and satisfaction, which may be associated with other heart-healthy lifestyle choices.

One thing is clear, Montilla notes: taking time off helps relieve stress, which has a correlation with heart disease.

How stress affects the heart

Stress raises levels of certain hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. In the short term, this can be helpful, triggering the “fight or flight” response that helps you deal with immediate threats. Over time, however, chronic stress could increase your risk for a slew of health issues, including heart disease.

In fact, repeated stress can lead to episodes of high blood pressure, elevated heart rate and irregular heart rhythms. You might also lose sleep or be tempted to overeat, smoke or drink alcohol in a misguided attempt to de-stress. Those who respond to stress in such unhealthy ways may be increasing their risk for heart problems.

Get away from it all, really

People often worry about how a vacation may affect their workplace or their job status. You may, for example, be concerned that your absence will be too much of a burden on your coworkers or that it could reduce your likelihood of getting promoted. But you shouldn’t look at taking a vacation as an indulgence or something to feel guilty about doing. Instead, view time off as well-deserved and something positive that you’re doing for your health, Montilla advises.

When you do leave the office for a getaway, it’s important to actually unplug to make the most of your vacation—something many people don’t do. The Glassdoor survey found that:

  • 66 percent of those polled reported working while on vacation
  • 46 percent of the participants felt like they could not fully “check-out” while away
  • 23 percent of respondents had a hard time not thinking about work

Counterintuitively, taking time off may actually increase your productivity at work. Research has shown that workers expend less effort on routine tasks after their vacation than they did before.

So, how do you leave work behind and effectively de-stress when you’re on vacation? Consider these helpful strategies:

  • Set up your out-off-office email: Let co-workers, clients and others know when you will be gone and who can answer questions until you get back. Hint: set up these autoreplies for the day before you leave and a day after you return so you won’t feel overwhelmed right before or after your trip.
  • Limit access to work communications: If you must check email, texts or voicemail while away, don’t do it all day long. Set aside a half hour or so (perhaps in the late morning) to check in. If possible, delegate any problems that need immediate attention.
  • Take shorter vacations: If you feel like an entire week is too long to be away from your job, take several long weekends instead. A quick getaway to the beach, mountains or another “happy place” can help recharge your batteries.

Plan your next vacation: The simple act of planning your next trip can make you smile. A study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life in 2010 found that “vacation anticipation” boosted happiness in the weeks before the trip.

Sourcing: American Psychological Association, Harvard Medical School, American Heart Association, Journal of Applied Psychology, Cleveland Clinic

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