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Take vacations to heart

Do we really need someone to tell us that time away is good for us? Apparently so.

July 16, 2007|Karen Ravn | Special to The Times

ARTIST Wilda Northrop is perfectly happy hanging out in her beautiful Victorian home in Pacific Grove with her husband and her dogs and her cats and her painting and her TV and her spectacular ocean view.

Home suits her so well, in fact, that she's rarely tempted to leave.

But she did want to see a sumo wrestling exhibition in Honolulu last month. (Northrop is wild about sumo wrestling.) And she did want to show her appreciation to the daughter who included the exhibition in her plans for a big family trip.

Eventually, those desires were enough to get Northrop out of the house and onto a plane.

Her decision might have been easier if only she'd been familiar with research about the benefits of vacations -- showing that people who take them regularly are generally healthier than people who don't. They're less likely to have heart attacks, they report lower levels of stress and depression and they may even be happier in their marriages. And, of course, when vacationers return to work, they're usually less burned out than they were before they left.

"People are very stressed. They have very busy lives," says Yoshi Iwasaki, professor of therapeutic recreation at Temple University. "Vacations are an important way of finding meaning in life. They enhance the quality of life, including health."

But time away isn't necessarily a ticket to better health. To get the most out of a vacation, it matters where you go, what you do and how worried you are about the work and life issues you're leaving behind or the hassles to which you'll be returning. And it doesn't pay to be worried about money while on vacation either.

Also researchers consistently find that vacations seem to do your heart good. The more often you take them, the less likely you are to have a heart attack.

From 1965 to 1967, as part of the Framingham Heart Study, about 750 women ages 45 to 64 with no heart disease completed an extensive questionnaire about personal and lifestyle characteristics. The women were tracked for the next 20 years, and then researchers analyzed their risk factors for having a heart attack, fatal or not.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 1992, reported that the least frequent vacationers (those who took no more than one vacation every six years) were at 50% higher risk for a heart attack than the most frequent vacationers (those who took at least two vacations every year). Among stay-at-home spouses, the difference was higher: The least-frequent vacationers faced about twice the risk of the most-frequent vacationers.

In another study, known as the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial, researchers tracked more than 12,000 men ages 35 to 57 who were considered at high risk for heart disease, for nine years. During the first five years of the study, which started in 1973, the men were asked about their vacationing habits.

In a later analysis of the data, scientists divided the men into two groups: frequent vacationers (those who took vacations at least four of the five years) and infrequent vacationers. Reporting in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine in 2000, they found that infrequent vacationers had about a 20% higher risk of dying from any cause during the nine-year tracking period. And they had nearly a 50% higher risk of dying from a heart attack.

Such findings aren't ironclad proof of a cause-and-effect relationship between vacations and good health, but they are suggestive, the researchers noted. Perhaps time away contributes to good health by reducing stress while increasing physical activity and social contacts, the researchers suggested.


Cycle of stress

Stress has been linked not only to high blood pressure and heart attacks but also to many other illnesses and conditions, including cancer and the common cold. People experience stress whenever they feel threatened by anything, be it a hungry tiger or a grouchy boss, and the body reacts dramatically to this so-called "flight or fight" response.

Hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine are released into the bloodstream, speeding up the heart and breathing rates and ramping up blood pressure. More blood is sent to the brain and muscles, carrying the nutrients and oxygen needed to think and act quickly. Less blood gets sent to the skin and other body parts that are relative bystanders in the emergency.

That's all well and good if stress is a once-in-a-while thing and the body can soon get back to normal. If stress, on the other hand, is chronic, the levels of these hormones stay too high for too long and begin wreaking havoc on the immune and cardiovascular systems and the brain.

Vacationing seems to be one way to break the stress cycle.

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