A recent study found that 52 percent of Americans are still not using all of the vacation time they earn, and a large portion of those who did take time off didn’t use it to travel. This is a real shame, given that the same study found that people who did use their PTO to see the world reported being much more satisfied with their job, company, personal relationships, and their physical health and well-being.
Now, a new study presented at the at European Society of Cardiology Congress has found that taking vacation days doesn’t just affect your life satisfaction and emotional well-being, it also has a major impact on your longevity.
Back in 1974 and 1975, the Helsinki Businessmen Study recruited 1,222 middle-aged male executives, all of whom had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease (such as smoking, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol). Half of the men were placed into an intervention group which encouraged them to engage in physical activity, eat healthy, maintain a good BMI, and quit smoking (which are four of the five things a recent Harvard study said would guarantee a longer life). The other half was placed into a control group and carried their lives on as usual.
As expected, those who had been placed in the intervention group experienced a 46 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. However, curiously enough, when the researchers followed up with participants in 1989, they found that there had been more deaths in the intervention group than in the control group.
For the next 25 years, researchers examined national death registers and data on the lifestyle habits of the participants in order to figure out the source of this discrepancy, and managed to establish a link between how much vacation time the men took and their risk of early death. Even though they had adopted all of the techniques that help people live longer, men in the intervention group who had taken three weeks or less of vacation time per year had a 37% greater chance of dying in 1974 to 2004 than those who took more than three weeks.
The results indicate that, in order to live a long and happy life, it’s not enough to take good care of your body. People, especially those who are in high-powered jobs, tend to treat vacation like it’s a frivolous indulgence that they can engage in when they have the time (which is never). And the rise of the “workcation” means that more and more people are not truly unplugging even when they do travel abroad. This longterm study is therefore significant in providing evidence to suggest that taking a break from work is not a luxury, but a vital part of a healthy lifestyle.
“The harm caused by the intensive lifestyle regime was concentrated in a subgroup of men with shorter yearly vacation time,” Dr.Timo Strandberg, professor at the Department of Medicine at the University of Helsinki and lead author of the study, said. “In our study, men with shorter vacations worked more and slept less than those who took longer vacations. This stressful lifestyle may have overruled any benefit of the intervention.”
Like all studies, this one has its limitations, and Stranberg theorizes that it’s possible there were more deaths in the intervention group because “the intervention itself may also have had an adverse psychological effect on these men by adding stress to their lives.” But he also added that people shouldn’t “think having an otherwise healthy lifestyle will compensate for working too hard and not taking holidays…Vacations can be a good way to relieve stress.”
For what it’s worth, you don’t always need to travel very far, or take a lot of time off, in order to reap the benefits of your vacation days. And for more great advice on living longer, check out this guide to looking and feeling younger than ever before—straight from America’s fittest CEO.
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