How Vacations Really Boost Physical and Mental Health

Multiple new research studies indicate that there are many physical and mental health benefits to gain from taking a holiday, some reportedly remaining even two months after we have returned to the daily grind. However, research also shows that certain habits and attitudes can neutralize these benefits, and even leave you more tired, stressed out, unhealthy and overwhelmed than how you started out.

With the average vacation time a year typically being less than 20 days per year, thankfully recent science research suggests how we can get the greatest health benefits from this short and sweet holiday time and how to avoid needing a vacation to recover from your vacation!

The Benefits of Taking a Vacation

1) Life Satisfaction

Vacations can contribute to psychological wellness, where positive holiday experiences have spill-over effects how individuals evaluate their overall satisfaction with life, particularly boosting satisfaction with social life, leisure life, family life, love life, work life, spiritual life, intellectual life, culinary life, and travel life.
A Canadian study suggests that these improvements in life satisfaction are influenced by holidays promoting improved work-life balance, decreased time pressure and better mental health.

2) Physical Improvements

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Improvements in sleep quality, mood, physical complaints and blood pressure have also been reported to persist after returning from vacation and getting back to reality.

3) Mental Health

On top of vacations being a great emotional wellbeing and mood booster, another study reported that the anxiety creating tendency to focus on something causing us distress, instead of thinking of solutions or getting over it, called rumination, lessens during vacations, and stays low even two weeks after vacation.

4) Creativity

Cognitive flexibility, i.e. the component of creativity that bestows the ability to adapt our thinking to face new and unexpected conditions in the environment, has been shown to be boosted after a long summer holiday.

Ideas generated at work after a holiday were more diverse than before going on vacation, showing more ingenuity by avoiding a reliance on conventional ideas and routine solutions.

5) Career

A higher degree of job involvement coupled with decreased job stress and work burnout makes for a happier and harder worker when returning to work.

How to Boost Vacation Benefits and Avoid Pitfalls

The Vacation Deprivation Survey, conducted for Expedia, indicates that in 2013, 10% of Americans felt they could never relax while on vacation. Such negative vacation experiences have been shown to detract from overall life satisfaction, particularly in social life, family life, love life, work life, health and safety, financial life, spiritual life, and culinary life.

And even for those that have the time of their lives when they are away, some habits can counteract the good that those positive holiday experiences achieved:

1) Make the Most of the Pre-Vacation High

You can ride the pre-trip high, where research on the ‘rosy view’ phenomenon suggests the pre-trip high may have an even more positive impact on one’s well-being, presumably even stronger than the actual experience itself or post trip memories.

2) Don’t Let Pre-Vacation Workload and Homeload Get Out of Control

The rosy view phenomenon can counterbalance the all-too-common pre-vacation stress that comes with the piling up of homeload (e.g. packing, tidying, arranging pet care etc.) and workload need to finish work on time. However, this is not always the case and women in particular are at higher risk of missing out on vacation benefits due to generally having a larger increase in homeload (on top of an increased workload) when compared to their partner.

3) Plan an Easy Return to Work

High work demands after vacation have been shown to eliminate positive vacation effects and speed up the fade-out process. Preparing in advance for a gently easing in to work, and preventing overwhelming workloads, is a good move.

4) Choose Leisure Goals Wisely

Many people make goals on holiday that they don’t keep like ‘I’ll run on the beach every morning’ or ‘visit every touristic sight there is too see’. Well, research suggests if you set more attractive and realistic travel goals and take actions to implement them, you are more likely to experience higher levels of subjective wellbeing from your vacation.

5) Leave Narcissism at the Door

Particularly in men, higher levels of narcissism are linked with larger differences between what one expects from a holiday and what is actually experienced. Researchers suggest that this may be due to when something doesn’t go to plan, the positive vacation illusions of narcissistic individuals are burst, challenging their sense of control over events in their lives.

6) Workaholics…Work a Little Less Please!

If you work compulsively, you might get a greater boost in wellbeing during your holiday, but when you return, the drop in wellbeing is much greater than for non-workaholics. Being a workaholic is associated with many nasty problems with physical and mental health and best avoided anyway, but making an active choice to change workaholic habits could generate an even greater vacation-induced wellbeing boost than ever experienced.

6) Make Healthy Eating Choices

These findings should be taken with a pinch of salt due to the absence of a control group. Nonetheless, one study found a very small, but statistically significant, weight gain of 0.3 kg after the vacation period that persisted 6 weeks after vacation. They suggested that cumulatively, year on year, this could contribute to obesity. Taking a healthy approach to eating and exercising habits while on vacation should do the trick.

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