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Get Outta Here! Vacations Are a Serious Matter

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 21, 2000 -- Grab the car keys. Check a travel web site. Whatever it takes, get outta there. Get away from work. That annual family vacation -- despite the kids' whining, the traffic tie-ups, the airline delays -- could save your life. A new study shows that people who take annual vacations are less likely to die young -- especially from heart disease.

The message is clear, study author Brooks B. Gump, PhD, MPH, tells WebMD: "Don't skip your annual vacations. We found that people who reported taking no vacation for five years were at a much higher risk of heart disease and [death] further down the line." Gump is assistant professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Gump analyzed data from a nine-year study of nearly 13,000 men -- all between the ages of 35 and 57 -- who were at high risk for heart disease. All completed a lifestyle questionnaire, but in analyzing the data, Gump specifically focused on answers to one question: "Within the last 12 months, have you experienced a vacation?"

He found that 13% of the 13,000 men had not taken vacations. "Those who took regular vacations every year had a lower risk of death when compared to those who skipped their vacations," Gump says. Of those who died, 30% were related to heart disease. The findings were published in the September/October issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

Another published study -- the Framingham Heart Study -- looked at the health effects of vacations in women and found a similar effect, Gump tells WebMD. "There was a significant association between infrequent vacationing and increased incidence of [heart attacks] or death due to heart disease." Another study has shown that men who developed psychosomatic illnesses were less likely to take vacations than other men.

The value of vacations lies in the change of pace itself -- getting your mind off daily worries. "It's taking time out from the everyday, relentless stressors," says Gump. "Even anticipating a vacation can ease stress levels. It removes anticipated threats, provides a period of what we call 'signaled safety'. Anticipated threats are known to have adverse effects as great as -- if not greater than -- the threat itself."

Vacation rids us of the bad habit of what he calls 'vigilance,' Gump tells WebMD. "On vacation, you can let your guard down. You can stop worrying about what could happen."

Also, vacations have their unique, restorative powers. "It's those health-protective effects from social support of family and from exercising more. Those things are particularly helpful if done in the context of no stress," he says.

But a true vacation, Gump tells WebMD, means truly leaving the office behind. "Bring along your pager or cell phone, and you won't get the full benefit of the vacation. You're constantly on guard for potential stress."

In fact, what psychologists call rumination -- those circulating, stressful thoughts -- "can extend the effects of stress. Ruminating while you're running defeats the health benefits of the exercise," says Gump.

"Studies looking at acute stress reaction show that people who are under a lot of 'background stress' -- constant stress -- react more to the acute stressors that happen every day," he tells WebMD. "They would be at higher risk for [heart] disease. We also know that background stress causes poorer health behaviors, too. They're eating more fatty foods, drinking more, have higher cholesterol levels, smoke more."

A vacation can give a stressed-out worker some sense of mastery over his universe -- and that in itself brings relief, says one psychologist.

"A lot of stressful things in the work environment are chronic, and mostly people don't have control over them," says Steve Jex, PhD, author of Stress and Job Performance. "If you have a boss you don't like, there's nothing you can do about it. The only way to get relief is to get away. Get out of that environment for awhile. That may be the best thing for you." Jex is also an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

And at least one cardiologist is adding "take a vacation" to his advice to patients. Stress reduction -- in whatever form it takes -- significantly reduces risk of heart disease and death in those individuals who are at risk, says Laurence Sperling, MD, medical director of preventive cardiology at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta. Sperling reviewed the study for WebMD.

"There's a growing body of literature that is confirming that stress ... definitely affects the risk of heart disease and death from heart disease," Sperling tells WebMD. "For some individuals, stress is on par with other major risk factors like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes. Stress can clearly be a major risk factor."

But what creates the most "heart-healthy" vacation? "Is it better to go on a trout-fishing vacation vs. going to the Grand Canyon? Should you take the kids along or not? There's no information in this study," says Sperling, who regularly takes "mini-vacations." They help, too, he says.

And taking a daily "mental vacation" also counts, Sperling adds: "Exercise is good for stress relief, so is meditation, but really what works is any activity that diverts you from usual rigors of life. Individuals have to define for themselves what that is, whether it's playing the piano, going for a walk by yourself, listening to Beethoven or soft music -- what things are cathartic for them, what gets them out of their usual mindset."