How Vacationing Can Actually Reduce Your Risk Of Premature Death

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We often relate taking a vacation with stress relief, but how often do we equate it to avoiding premature death? According to several studies, taking time off from work can have a significant impact on your heart health, metabolic health, stress levels, and mental health. 

In 2021, the average American didn't take 9.5 of their vacation days. While we may rationalize working without time off with more pay, better benefits, and just general hustle culture, a 2018 study by the European Society of Cardiology actually found that shorter vacation times (less than three weeks a year) were linked to higher mortality rates — even in groups of people who led a generally healthy lifestyle. 

According to Dr. Mike Varshavski, "[Another] study published in European Geriatric Medicine found that those who took short vacations had higher BMI, lower self-rated health, and a higher all-cause mortality." Metabolic syndrome, which is basically a cluster of health conditions that could give rise to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke, is another risk factor that can be staved off by time off, cited in yet another study. As explained by New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital cardiologist, Gioia Turitto (via The Healthy), "A long work week, defined as greater than 55 hours a week, is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying of a heart attack. Workaholics are also more likely to have a 'type A' personality, which is a well-known risk factor for heart issues."

Chronic stress can lead to premature death too

In addition to decreasing your risk of heart disease, vacationing helps alleviate chronic stress – a condition that leads to obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, anxiety, and substance abuse, per Yale Medicine. Stress has also been associated with impaired cognitive function, lack of productivity, and decreased learning ability, according to a 2023 study in Molecular Psychiatry. While stress can't technically kill you, "over time, [it] can cause damage that leads to premature death," as shared by Dalhousie University's Dr. Patricia Celan (via Healthline). 

No matter how long or hard we work, our brains are capable of handling only a certain amount at a time. It's important to listen to those signals and take time off when we need to. In fact, according to Assistant Professor of Public Health at Syracuse University, Bryce Hruska (via Verywell Health), taking time off should become a habit just like brushing your teeth is. "If you brush your teeth every day for two minutes, the chances of developing a cavity are far less than if you brush your teeth only once per year for a long duration. In other words, vacationing — like other important health behaviors — may be most beneficial to our health when we make it a habit that is integrated into our lives," he explained. 

Most people get about two weeks of annual vacation time a year. How can you maximize this time so you reap the best health benefits?

Make your vacation time meaningful and try to spread it out throughout the year

If you suddenly take a few weeks off after working 24/7, it might be difficult for your mind to shut off and get into vacation mode. You can practice switching off during regular work weeks (for example, when you come back home in the evenings or during weekends). Slowly work yourself up to completely disconnecting from work emails and calls. When you take more time off, this can help ensure your vacation time is actually spent vacationing. Make use of sick time and mental health days as you need them. Micro-breaks from work can help too. 

It's also important not to fall into a fantasy of what vacationing should look like based on what you see on social media or brochures. Spend some time reflecting on what you personally enjoy. If you can't afford to jet off to an exotic island for your annual two weeks off, try staying at home and engaging in things you find relaxing. As explained by sociologist and author of "The Sweet Spot: How to Achieve More by Doing Less," Christine Carter (via Everyday Health), "Think about the healthy comfort items that would come with a vacation, and give yourself permission to have those. Sit in your backyard and read something enjoyable, or just get outside and expose yourself to nature."

The trick is to switch up your scenery, break away from your work routine, and pursue what makes you happy.