Seven reasons why you really do need a holiday, according to science
Jun 4, 2021
The pandemic continues to wreak havoc on travel plans, but with the vaccine as our weapon, we can now escape our daily routine and we are able to travel again.
According to science, in addition to pleasant, holidays are necessary for the good of our health.
Should you go on holiday?
Amid the chaos, cost, and confusion currently surrounding travel, a week on holiday remains elusive.
But holidays are not just an indulgence –they’re vital for good health and psychological wellbeing.
After the year we’ve just had, it’s more important than ever to find a way to escape, whether you’re traveling to Crete, Greece, heading interstate or holidaying at home.
Here are seven reasons why you should persevere with that booking if you can – and how to maximize the health benefits of your trip.
“Holidays offer the opportunity to bank good quality sleep,” says sleep physiologist and founder of The Sleep School, Dr. Guy Meadows. After two or three days on holiday, most people average an hour more of good quality sleep than they did before the trip, according to one study. This may help support a healthy immune system, says Meadows: “We know people who regularly get less than six hours a night are four-and-a-half times more likely to catch a cold.”
Holidays can allow you to work out your optimum sleep time and patterns, and be guided by your natural rhythms. But Meadows says it’s generally best to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day – so an afternoon siesta may be another way to “bank” sleep. Just be sure to put all screens away before dinner – the blue light disrupts sleep.
Indeed, if you’re an owl whose bedtime has been edging later in the pandemic, with repeated Netflix binges, you might want to join the current camping trend to reset your body clock. “When you take people away from their lit-up city lives, within five days their melatonin levels shift up to two hours earlier, so that they fall asleep faster and get better quality, deeper sleep,” says Meadows. “Deep sleep is associated with improved problem solving and cell repair.”
Top up on vitamin D
Holidays are an excellent way to replenish stores of vitamin D, especially after so many months of indoor living. This fat-soluble vitamin, which is made by our bodies in response to sunlight, is essential for bone health and has more recently gained attention for its role in immunity and potential to protect against acute respiratory infections.
One in five of us are thought to be deficient, with children, the elderly, and people with darker skin among groups with high levels of vitamin D deficiency. Fortunately, a holiday can offer a quick boost.
Most people can make enough vitamin D from being out in the sun daily for short periods with their forearms, hands or lower legs uncovered and without sunscreen, especially from 11 am to 3 pm. In the strong sun, focus on short bursts and then cover up, wear sunscreen and seek shade.
“If you’re outside six to seven hours a day, that’s the equivalent to 10,000 units of vitamin D. It will certainly increase your stores for a good month after,” says Dr Geoff Mullan, a functional medicine expert, at Human People nutrition consultancy.
Use your annual leave to protect your heart
Taking a holiday could cut your risk of heart disease, lowering your risk of developing metabolic syndrome, according to research carried out at Syracuse University, New York. Metabolic syndrome includes conditions such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of a heart attack. The research, published in the Psychology & Health journal, found that those with the lowest risk had taken five breaks, using two weeks of annual leave in the past year, with the risk of metabolic syndrome dropping 24 percent for every holiday they took.
The Framingham Heart Study, a longitudinal study that followed 5209 men and women between the ages of 30 and 62, also linked infrequent holidays to a greater risk of coronary heart disease, compared to those who took a holiday twice a year. Another followed 12,000 middle-aged men, who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease, over nine years. The researchers found that those who failed to make their annual leave had a 21 percent higher risk of dying from all causes and were 32 percent more likely to die of a heart attack. Just try not to undo the good work by drinking and eating to excess while away.
Reduce stress and get your energy back
“The effects of [the stress hormone] cortisol are enormous, so if you can go on holiday and dial that down, that would be very beneficial,” says Dr Mullan. “People forget stress is like squirting steroids into your body every day. Cortisol suppresses your sex hormones and thyroid, so you can get thinning hair and low libido and your energy will decrease.”
Research shows that a holiday can reduce feelings of stress and burnout and the number of sick days you take, but to see the full health benefits you’ll need to switch off your devices. That’s according to researchers at Tel Aviv University, who found that unplugging from work, not checking emails, and turning off a work mobile phone was more important for gaining benefits from a holiday than the length of the break.
Psychologist Linda Blair adds that it doesn’t matter if you’re not traveling far – in fact, going local can make for the most relaxing holidays.
“All that travel stress at the beginning or end of a trip can really diminish the benefits. The best holiday I ever had with my kids was in a hotel three miles down the road. I got the kids in the car and told them we were off on a long journey, but then five minutes later we arrived and everyone was delighted, no one was tired. It was the most restful holiday we’d ever had.”
A target for your fitness regimen
There’s nothing quite like the thought of shoehorning a doughy winter body back into last summer’s swimsuit, to focus the mind and kick-start a new gym or diet habit.
To make the most of your newfound motivation, however, we need to think beyond the number on the scales. “When we’re focused on an outcome or ‘external’ goal, like ‘lose 10 pounds’, we’re dependent on outside validation,” says behavior change specialist, Dr. Heather McKee.
“Then if the scales aren’t hitting the right number we feel like we’ve ‘failed’, get demotivated and give up.” Instead, we need to “focus on the process”, says McKee, creating new habits, as part of our daily routine, like increasing your daily steps.
She also advises reflecting on what’s driving our desire to lose weight or get fit. “Is it because you’ll feel happier and more confident in your body? Or to have more energy?” says McKee. Research shows we’re far more likely to persist when goals are “intrinsic”, meaning they chime with our values and have a personal significance, she says.
Time together – and time apart
It’s likely you could do with a little quality time with your family. Research shows that holiday activities like games, or going for walks, can help create shared experiences, improve relationships and help form closer bonds in families.
Of course, if your relationship is on thin ice, a holiday can make or break, but on the whole, research shows that couples who travel together are more connected and intimate with their partner. If you feel you’ve spent the past year in each other’s pockets, take the opportunity for some breathing space, says Linda Blair. “Have a touchpoint every day – I’d suggest eating dinner together – then everyone should go off and do exactly what they want. You’ll feel refreshed when you come back.”
... and when you’re back, book another one
When researchers in the Netherlands looked into the effects of a holiday on happiness, among 1530 adults, they found that the greatest mood boosts came from looking forward to the holiday, with “vacation anticipation” lasting a full eight weeks. But this holiday lift doesn’t seem to persist after the holiday, for most people. Even those who reported feeling “very relaxed” on the holiday found the benefits lasted no more than two weeks afterward. For maximum happiness, the researchers suggested booking several short trips a year, rather than one big trip.