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That relaxing vacation may be just what the doctor ordered

Could a vacation save your life? Some research suggests that might not be too far of a reach. Studies have shown that taking at least one vacation per year increases longevity by reducing the kind of stress that has been linked to heart attacks, hypertension, depression and other illnesses.

A study done by psychologists at State University College at Oswego, N.Y., which was reported in Psychosomatic Medicine, showed that men who take more frequent vacations have a 30% lower risk of dying of heart disease, and women have a 50% less change of dying of heart disease, compared to those who don’t vacation.

Dr. Michael T. Allen, chair of the department of psychology at the University of Mississippi, said the authors of the Psychosomatic Medicine article report a beneficial relationship between taking vacations and cardiovascular mortality, but they also point out alternative explanations that preclude a definitive statement about increased vacations causing lower mortality.

“Despite this, there are a number of reasons to think that vacations could be beneficial to your health,” Allen said. “Some of these are removal from the stressful work and home environment, anticipation of a positive event weeks before the vacation with attention drawn away from more worrying thoughts, more time spent with family and friends in hopefully a positive environment, and a greater sense of perspective about everyday problems and stresses. This latter reason reflects the notion that when one is immersed in the day-to-day stresses of work or home, it is easy to lose perspective and not be able to step back from the problems and see the ‘bigger picture.’ Taking time to remove oneself from the day-to-day grind may allow one to get a broader perspective on problems when returning from the vacation.”

Getting away from daily stress

Allen said there is a general perception among most people that going on vacations is a healthy thing to do in order to get away from the stress of one’s work and stresses at home. And there is a large and growing body of evidence that shows that stress has a negative effect on many physiological systems, including the cardiovascular system.

“Although the actual scientific evidence for the beneficial health effects of vacations may not be completely convincing, ‘folk wisdom’, such as the perception of the benefits of vacation by most people, is often based on a real effect,” Allen said. “One thing mentioned in the article as a caveat to the study which I think is very important to point out is that the potential beneficial aspects of a vacation most likely vary widely depending on the nature and duration of the vacation. A vacation that consists of rushed travel to a crowded theme park with little time for rest or relaxation likely has much different stress reduction effects from a vacation spent relaxing and reflecting on a mountaintop or secluded beach.

“But even that is likely different from person to person as quiet or solitude affects people in a variety of ways. One person may experience a day of quiet beachcombing as uplifting, whereas another may experience boredom. It is also likely that the length of the vacation is important as it may take time to unwind on vacation.”

Allen spent almost two weeks on vacation in July, including a week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

“We go to a fairly isolated village, and rent a beach cottage for a week,” Allen said. “I try to completely unwind by mainly fishing and crabbing, beachcombing, reading and spending quality time with family. I purposely take off my watch during the week and try to have as little planned as possible. It is a wonderful experience. The only negative thing is how much I hate to leave when the week is up.”

Jille Bartolome, a business and life coach with Human Edge Coaching Services in Bay St. Louis, says having a balanced life and a close family are two of the greatest indicators of health and happiness.

“Vacations are an opportunity to relax and experience new and exciting aspects of our world,” Bartolome said. “It is also a great time for families and friends to re-connect away from the distractions of our everyday lives.”

Bartolome takes three to four vacations a year, one “big” vacation with the two kids and her spouse and a couple of family camping trips every fall. She also finds other times to relax.

“I have a small group of women friends that I go to area resorts with for spa weekends for special occasions like birthdays,” she said. “This is a great way to share time with the girls away from the husband and the kids. I also take work vacations like going on a retreat for the faculty at Coach U (were I am on staff) or going to the International Coach Federation Conference annually. Last year it was in Denver. This year it is in Quebec.

“In between vacations, I like to take off and have some fun at least once or twice a week. This year we purchased a pass to the Wave Pool at Buccaneer State Park in Waveland, and visited it at least once a week this summer. Or, we head over to New Orleans for a day in the French Quarter.”

Then again, is getting away really worth it?

Several sources contacted for this article said they weren’t a good person to ask because they rarely vacation.

“I think vacations are a total waste of money,” quipped Perry Nations, executive director, Associated General Contractors of Mississippi. “They ought to be outlawed. All they do is confuse things.”

Especially for small business owners, getting away for any length of time is a real challenge. But one way to get some of the benefits of downtime, without being gone so long that the work piled up when you get back negates the benefits of the vacation, is considering “mini vacations.”

“I believe one of the things that is healthful for us is taking mini vacations,” said Donna Yowell, executive director, Mississippi Urban Forestry Council. “Mississippi, especially, has a lot of natural areas that are beautiful for these short vacations. Recently I took some folks from Washington, D.C., who were here for a floodplain conference to Natchez, and gave them a tour that featured the natural resources of the area: historic trees, the natural landscape and innovative things that are being done for erosion control on the Mississippi River.

“Then we went to the Coast. There is a lot on the Coast that is good for short vacations. Some of these small vacations are less expensive. And then you also get out, enjoy fresh air and exercise, and get to explore the natural beauty of the state.”

A trend reported since 9/11 is for people to vacation closer to home. Yowell believes that works well for people in Mississippi because the state has so many places with charm and character, attractions ranging from unique shopping opportunities to nature trails.
Another person who favors mini vacations is Dr. Joan Exline, associate professor and assistant to the president at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“I’m terrible about not taking vacations,” Exline said. “I take more shorter trips to Destin, Fla., or to the Coast. It is just too hard to be away from everything for an extended period. It makes it worse when you come back, and you still have everything to do.”

Taking a vacation is good advice, but Exline cautions people about overdoing it. “Be careful what you do on vacation,” Excline said. “If you try to cram in a lot of activities you are not used to doing, you can put yourself at a higher risk for heart attacks or other problems. Don’t go on vacation and overexert yourself.”

Rewarding weekends?

Chris Bowen, executive director of Pat Harrison Waterway District, admits he hasn’t taken a long vacation since 18 days in Australia in 2000 visiting kinfolk. But Bowen says “even a weekend” can be a vacation.

“Often there are fun things going on during the weekend,” Bowen said. “On a weekend my wife and I might slide down to New Orleans for shopping and eating. Sometimes even on a weeknight we will take off and go down to eat at Noodles at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi. My wife has started graduate school. Summers are our busiest times, and we didn’t get to take any vacation this summer. So we are going to take three nights to go down to Gulf Shores over the Labor Day weekend.”

The Bowens also take time each year at Christmas to visit a deer camp near Waynesboro.

“We enjoy the best Mississippi has to offer on the Buckatuna Creek,” he said. “It is gorgeous. It can really revive you being around a campfire, and fixing some nice meals. We don’t go so much to hunt as enjoy a nice meal and the company.”

While the waterway district’s 91 cabins and 600 RV sites at parks in South Mississippi stay pretty much booked from spring through Labor Day, Bowen said he generally doesn’t go to the parks on his vacation. He would be tempted to work, and then it wouldn’t be a vacation.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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