What taking a holiday does to your body and brain

It isn’t always easy to carve out time for a holiday.

The average American worker takes just eight days a year, according to 2015 figures from the US Department of Labour.

That would have been unimaginable for a medieval peasant, who took anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off.

The short breaks mean that Americans are donating an average of $US604 in work time to their employers every year in unused vacation time that can’t be rolled over or paid out, according to a 2017 estimate from the US Travel Association.

Nearly half (49%) of American workers said they can’t vacation because their workloads are too heavy, according to a 2016 survey from NPR, Harvard, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And 42% of those survey respondents said they felt they couldn’t take all their paid vacation days because there weren’t enough people to cover for them.

But there are some signs Americans are starting to change their ways: a 2018 report from the US Travel Association suggests that after two decades of declines in the number of vacation days workers took per year, employees who work more than 35 hours a week and receive paid time off are now starting to both earn and use up more allotted holiday time than they did a few years back. In 2017, vacationers spent an an extra half day away from their desks on average than they did in 2016, according to the report.

Although it can feel tough to get away from the office, we’re likely not doing ourselves any favours by working ourselves into the ground. There are real, important benefits to a restful vacation.

Here’s what vacation can do for your body and your brain, according to research.


The opposite of vacation — overwork — can lead to health problems. Researchers studied the work habits of more than 600,000 people in the US, UK, and Australia, and found that people who work more than 55 hours a week are 33% more likely to suffer a stroke and have a 13% greater risk of heart attack than those who work 35-40 hours weekly.

Dragon Images/Shutterstock

Source: The Lancet


Economists have even calculated the most productive and efficient schedules for factory workers, and found that working much more than 48 hours a week tends to make productivity plummet.

Economist John Pencavel from Stanford says that calculation would vary by a bit for other professions, though.


Clinical psychologist Deborah Mulhern told ABC that when you don’t unwind and get away from “external stresses” (like a heavy workload), it gets harder for your body to relax.

Nattakorn_Maneerat/Shutterstock

“What neuroscience is showing is that we require down time in order for our bodies to go through the process of restoration,” she told ABC News. “Without time and opportunity to do this, the neural connections that produce feelings of calm and peacefulness become weaker, making it actually more difficult to shift into less-stressed modes.”


Even anticipating a vacation can improve your mood. Researchers who studied 974 vacationers from the Netherlands discovered that planning for a vacation makes people happier before they go.

Shutterstock

In fact, the mood-boosting effect of thinking about an upcoming trip has a more noticeable effect on your happiness than any post-vacation attitude shift, according to the same research.


Your vacation doesn’t have to be long. “Most people have better life perspective and are more motivated to achieve their goals after a vacation, even if it is a 24-hour time-out,” psychologist and stress expert Francine Lederer told ABC.

Source: ABC News


Vacation can help you catch up on much needed rest, even after you return home.

Shutterstock

A study funded by Air New Zealand in 2006 found that vacationers travelling from LA lowered their heart rates by around 4% after visiting New Zealand. People in the study also slept deeper and longer (around 20 additional minutes a night) when they returned to the US.


After about three days of vacation, you can speed up your reaction times significantly.

Getty Images

The effect on vacationers after the New Zealand study was measurable: “Reaction time was 30 to 40% higher than it had been before the trip,” lead researcher Mark Rosekind told the New York Times in 2008.

“The only study that has ever come close to producing results this compelling was our NASA study testing the performance of airline pilots after taking a 26-minute nap,” Rosekind said in a release.


There’s more and more evidence that people who vacation don’t just live healthier lives, they might actually live longer.

Alan Crowhurst / Stringer / Getty Images

Studies of middle-aged men with heart issues from around the world suggest they can be around 37% more likely to die from things like coronary heart disease if they go on vacation regularly, regardless of how much money they make.


Researchers who followed a group of 749 women from Massachusetts for two decades found that those who went on vacation less than once every six years were nearly eight times more likely to develop heart problems than women who vacationed twice a year.

Of course, regular vacations aren’t as effective at keeping our hearts healthy as other important behavioural changes like stopping smoking, getting exercise, and keeping cholesterol levels in check.

But the finding was still impressive to the researchers behind the study.

“It shows how the body reacts to a lifestyle of stress,” co-author Elaine Eaker told the New York Times.

Another study of rural women from Wisconsin in 2005 revealed that those who vacationed once every two years or less were more likely to be depressed and unhappy with their marriage than those who vacationed twice a year or more.

In general, the researchers found that the more time women spent without a vacation, the worse their stress levels were.


A relaxing retreat might help keep your nerve cells healthy and your mind sharp.

In 2017, researchers studied 38 people who went on a three month yoga and meditation retreat. They found the participants reported feeling less depressed and anxious, and their bodies showed changes, too.

Participants increased their plasma levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor protein (BDNF), which keeps nerve cells healthy, and saw reductions in markers of stress and inflammation in the body.

Even if you can’t make time for a full-blown vacation, meditation has been shown to help relieve stress, ease feelings of depression, and boost your immune system.


A Dutch study suggested that vacationers benefit most from a more relaxing kind of trip.

Vacationers reported they were happiest when their trips excluded snaking lines or long, jet lag-inducing flights.


Don’t confuse relaxation with laziness — the best creative juices can come from adventures.

In a 2014 study published in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers examined 11 years of fashion-house trends and compared them to executives travel schedules. The results showed that more travel arguably made the couture better in the eyes of consumers.


Spending more time away from your desk can also motivate you to get more done while you are there.

Silatip/Shutterstock

Leadership experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman published a comparison of vacation time and productivity around the world in the Harvard Business Review in 2015.

“Spending less time at your desk forces you to waste less time,” they concluded.


One study even suggested that people who take more than 10 vacation days a year are twice as likely to get a raise or a bonus.

Shutterstock

Internal research from accounting firm EY (formerly Ernst & Young) suggests that the more vacation hours people take, the better their work reviews are, and the less likely they will be to leave the company.


If your vacation involves a lot of physical movement and exercise — something that can be hard to do enough while working full-time — that can increase its benefits for your body and brain.

Shutterstock

Cardio exercise has been shown to improve your mood, reduce risk of heart disease, and combat stress.


At the very least, if you can’t get out of the office, at least take a vacation from your email inbox now and then.

Flickr/Jim LarrisonTaking a break from your inbox can have a measurable effect on stress levels.

In 2012, researchers asked 13 desk workers to quit emailing for one week and hooked them up to wearable heart rate monitors.

They found that the participants’ stress levels dropped and their focus improved. People found new ways to contact colleagues if they really needed them.


So if you like your co-workers, stop sending them emails while you’re away.

Ditty_about_summer/Shutterstock

Katie Denis, who researches American vacation trends for the US Travel Association, recently called emailing on vacation “a quick way to ruin company culture” in the Harvard Business Review.

She said your colleagues will appreciate knowing that you trust that they will get things done and are organised enough to take a break.

NOW WATCH: Executive Life videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.