Vacation time helps the brain reboot and relieve stress. In a prior visit… (Pete Souza / European Pressphoto…)
President Obama and his family depart for Martha’s Vineyard on Thursday – a vacation that has become a source of political contention as Republicans accuse the first family of frolicking while the rest of the country struggles through economic hard times.
The Obama administration is standing its ground, with White House spokesman Jay Carney telling reporters last week that “I don't think Americans out there would begrudge the notion that the president would spend some time with his family.”
Let’s hope Carney is right about that. There’s plenty of research demonstrating that vacations are good for one’s mental health, and there’s no reason that wouldn’t apply to the commander-in-chief.
"A vacation is not a luxury – it’s an investment in your health," Jens Pruessner, an associate professor in the departments of psychology, psychiatry, neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University in Montreal, said in a Los Angeles Times story from Memorial Day weekend (the unofficial start of the summer vacation season).
That story examined the evidence for the benefits of taking vacations. Among the highlights:
- Having fun reduces stress, according to a 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers confined rats to tubes to stress them out, then tested the mitigating effects of such “fun” activities as eating sugar or having conjugal visits from other rats. The rats who got the “fun” interventions had lower heart rates and fewer stress hormones in their blood than rats who didn’t.
- Being on a vacation that relieves stress allows people to regain their ability to do well on tasks that require them to focus their attention. A 2009 PNAS study in rats provides clues for the mechanism behind this: Researchers found that stress causes parts of brain cells in the medial prefrontal cortex to shrink, impairing their ability to do well on an attention task. But after four weeks of stress-free living, the rats’ cells returned to normal.
- The longer you wait to relieve your stress, the longer it takes to get your groove back. Pruessner discovered this by measuring levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood of people who attended a two-week retreat where they practiced yogaand meditation. Those who had high cortisol levels at the beginning of the retreat returned to normal levels by the end. But those who arrived with below-normal levels (an indication that they were SO stressed out that their cortisol response had stopped working) still had reduce levels at the end of the two weeks, implying that they needed even more R&R, Pruessner said.
With that last point in mind, those who want the president to do his job well may be troubled by this CBS News tally
of Obama’s time off since taking office. According to CBS, Obama has spent just 61 days on vacation during 31 months in office. For the sake of comparison, George W. Bush had racked up 180 days at his Crawford, Texas, ranch at the same point in his presidency, and Ronald Reagan had logged 112 days at his ranch in California. (At the other end of the spectrum, Bill Clinton had taken only 28 vacation days 31 months into his first term.)
And of course, as Carney noted during last week’s press conference, the president is never really in full vacation mode. “There is no such thing as a presidential vacation,” he told reporters. “The presidency travels with you. He will be in constant communication and get regular briefings from his national security team as well as his economic team.”