Today, Americans are working more hours and taking less vacation time than ever before. However, vacation is a necessity — not a luxury — that prevents burnout and optimizes productivity.
In today’s article, Rane Wallace, MS, LPC, LCDC, SAP, of Fort Wellness Counseling reveals the importance of taking vacation days for both your physical and mental well-being.
What Does A Necessity and Not A Luxury Mean?
Many employers offer paid time off (PTO)—or even unlimited PTO— as a job perk. Unfortunately, doing so turns it into a commodity by which jobs are compared, leveraged, and chosen. However, it shouldn’t be this way. Ample studies have shown us that taking time away from work has both physical and mental health benefits. Keep scrolling to discover what those are.
Benefits Of Vacation Days
Taking vacation days is necessary for both our physical and mental well-being. Here are some reasons why vacation is a necessity, not a luxury:
Improves Physical Health
Wallace tells us that stress contributes to heart disease and blood pressure. One study found that women who vacationed once every six years — or less — were almost eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack compared to those who vacationed at least twice per year.
Another study found that those who vacationed more frequently were less likely to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of health issues including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess belly fat, and abnormal cholesterol levels.
Boosts Mental Health
Neuroscientists have found that chronic stress alters one’s brain structure. It also increases your risk of anxiety and depression. However, taking a vacation gives people time to recharge their batteries, allowing the mind to calm and stressful feelings to dissipate. “Not only do they remove you from the stressful work environment,” says Wallace. “But vacations also add to your self-care routine, decreasing anxiety and helping you avoid burnout.”
Strengthens Cognitive Flexibility
“Cognitive flexibility is the ability to appropriately adjust one’s behavior according to a changing environment,” says Wallace. “Vacations strengthen cognitive flexibility by taking us out of our day-to-day routine.” A greater degree of cognitive flexibility may contribute to a reduced risk of chronic diseases and obesity.
Increases Mental Motivation
Studies reveal that chronic stress makes it difficult to achieve certain tasks and causes memory problems. However, “adding a vacation to the calendar can provide a mental boost and motivation,” says Wallace. In a way, think of making vacation decisions as a way of giving your brain an oil change.
Restless nights are a common problem, and they often stem from having too much on your mind. However, research indicates that taking time off work interrupts the habits that disrupt sleep (like working late at night or scrolling before bed). One study confirmed that after taking two to three nights of vacation, participants averaged an hour more of quality sleep and experienced an 80% improvement in reaction time. When they returned home, they were still sleeping an hour longer, and their reaction time remained 30% to 40% higher than before.
Breaking up your usual routine can make you feel more stimulated and present. “Taking a vacation provides greater opportunity for rest and better sleep,” says Wallace. “It also gives your mind a chance to recalibrate and focus on the bigger picture. I typically go to the beach once per year, and I love to spend some time on the sand thinking about future goals and how things are going in life.”
Stress increases the levels of certain hormones, notably cortisol and adrenaline. And while this is helpful in emergencies (by triggering the fight or flight response), chronic stress levels are detrimental to one’s health. A study from the American Psychological Association confirmed that taking time off reduces stress by removing people from the activities, routines, and environments associated with anxiety.
If you plan on vacationing to the beach or mountains, another scientific study found that spending at least 120 minutes per week in natural environments supports overall health and well-being.
When Should I Take a Vacation?
“Vacations have a lot of mental health benefits that include helping you be happier and healthier, reducing stress, improving sleep, improving self-care and resilience, connecting socially, and decreasing burnout,” says Wallace. And most experts agree that taking at least two vacations per year can do wonders for both physical and mental health. Therefore, we recommend taking your next vacation as soon as possible. If you need some inspiration, check out our suggestions for the coolest family vacation spots.