Added to Favorites
Add to My Favorites
Added to My Favorites
by Janice Lloyd
Updated August 19, 2022
Should you take an adventure vacation in an exotic location? Or travel nearby, get plenty of rest and completely unplug?
All vacations are not created equal when it comes to stepping away from stress and improving brain health, researchers are discovering.
Knowing what's best for you is key. What to think about:
Before you travel. Watch stress levels. A study following 96 Dutch workers before they went on vacation found their health and well-being decreased in the last week before vacation because of a rising stress load at work and at home. Yet, a larger study — also from Holland — found that planning for vacation caused a boost in happiness. So to reduce pre-vacation stress, plan early and don't leave packing and errands until the last minute. Stress can lead to high blood pressure and poor sleep quality, which might get your vacation off to a rough start. A smooth start to vacation is important, says Jessica de Bloom, a researcher at the University of Tampere in Finland.
How often, how long. In a December 2012 study, de Bloom and colleagues called working men and women while they were on vacation — and up to four weeks after — to ask about their health, fatigue and stress levels. They concluded that shorter, more frequent vacations are better than longer, less frequent ones, because, as de Bloom told the Wall Street Journal "Holidays work more like sleep. You need regular recovery from work in order to stay healthy in the long run." Of course, many Europeans are lucky enough to have six weeks vacation, so they have more options for length and frequency.
Where you go. Other research found that warmer locations, getting better sleep and exercising while on vacation tend to bring out restorative qualities, while vacations with big time-zone changes, health-related problems and cold climates can actually increase stress or prove less restorative. Know what's restorative for you, she says.
What you do. Not everyone has to unplug, but determining beforehand if and when you want to work is key, according to de Bloom. Some people feel they have to work on vacation. That's OK as long as they "have control over whether to engage in work-related activities and the starting and stopping time," she says, adding that the important thing is making optimal use of leisure time and finding pleasure during that time. That vacation work time does have consequences: de Bloom's research has found the more relaxed and detached from work the vacationers were, the greater the boost in health and well being on their return.
After your return. De Bloom says her studies and others show that you carry the healthy glow of vacation longer if you can ease back into work. If you're retired, gradually resume your normal activities.
• “Pre-Vacation Time: Blessing or Burden?” Leisure Sciences, December 2012. This study followed 96 workers in the two weeks before their vacation to determine how their health and well-being changed before a vacation. They found that health and well-being decreased in the last week before they left, which was related to rising workloads and housework, particularly in women. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Vacationers Happier, but Most not Happier After a Holiday,” Applied Research in Quality of Life, February 2010. This study included 1,530 people who were part of a data bank from a research institute at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Participants filled out a questionnaire about their vacation, if they’d taken one. A group of 556 people didn’t go on a holiday vacation. The other group of 974 people did go on vacation. Vacationers were slightly happier than non-vacationers before their trip, but there was generally no difference in happiness between the two groups after the trip. Read the full study.
• “A large-scale study of stress, emotions, and blood pressure in daily life using a digital platform,” PNAS, July 2021. Researchers developed an app that measured participants’ blood pressure and heart rate and asked about their stress and other experiences three times a day. Close to 22,000 people participated in the study and completed more than 330,000 responses. The authors found that blood pressure was significantly higher during periods when people experienced stress, especially if they didn’t have the resources to deal with the higher demands they faced. Anyone over age 18 could download the app, and the participants were younger, white, and male, which doesn’t align with the general population. It’s also possible that those who took part in the study were more concerned about their health, and therefore healthier overall, which could have skewed the results. Read the full study.
• “Determinants of sleep quality in college students: A literature review,” Explore, February 2021. In this study, researchers reviewed the results of 112 studies published between 2007 and 2017 on factors that affected sleep quality in college students. Stress was associated with reduced sleep quality in 25 of the studies. Read the full study.
• “Effects of Short Vacations, Vacation Activities and Experiences on Employee Health and Well-Being,” Stress & Health, December 2011. The authors asked 80 workers about their health and wellness two weeks before their vacation, during their vacation, on the day they returned, and on the first and second week after they came home. They found greater improvements in health and wellness during short vacations, although the effects weren’t long lasting. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Effect of Vacation on Health: Moderating Factors of Vacation Outcome,” Journal of Travel Medicine, March 2005. Researchers asked 191 people who were either employees of a travel agency or their relatives to fill out a questionnaire within two weeks after their vacation about its effects on their recuperation and well-being. They found that factors like quality of sleep, physical activity, and time planning affected the health-related outcomes. One caveat to the study was that participants had to assess mood changes from two weeks before their vacation to post-vacation, and memory isn’t always reliable. Read the full study.