6 Ways to Optimize Your Vacation

Don’t let your vacation slide this year. Reap the health benefits of your time off with these tips.

Medically reviewed in October 2021

Updated on January 5, 2022

Americans throw away an estimated 768 million vacation days every year, according to 2019 figures from the U.S. Travel Association. That's 2.1 million years of unused vacation! Have we lost our minds?

Chronic stress and overcommitment to work have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and mortality. Needless to say, not taking vacations can also increase your RealAge.

You’ve probably heard—and may even have used—one of the many excuses for not taking a break: Your job can't live without you. You can't afford the expense. There simply aren't enough days in the year.

First things first: Toss these right out the window.

The truth is, you're not doing anyone any favors by not taking time off. Not your family. Not your employer. And definitely not yourself. Research suggests that reducing stress and taking regular vacations, at least once or twice a year, may be as vital to your emotional and physical well-being as getting regular exercise or eating a healthful diet.

And the benefits don't stop there. Vacations seem to have a positive impact on families and organizations as well.

Here are some characteristics of people who take frequent vacations:

  • They’re less likely to be depressed, tense, or tired.
  • They have a reduced risk of heart disease and all-cause mortality.
  • They tend to spend more time with their spouse and children and are more satisfied with their marriages.
  • They report being more interested and more productive in their work when they return from time off.

So change your mindset. Stop thinking of vacation as a luxury you can live without and start thinking of it as a non-negotiable health habit.

Ticket to health
The number one rule for a rejuvenating vacation? Leave the work and worries behind. And that'll be much easier to accomplish if you turn off or ditch your smartphone and laptop.

It was once predicted that by the year 2000, Americans would be using mobile phones, working 20-hour weeks, and enjoying more than 3 months of vacation each year. Unfortunately, only one of these predictions has come true.

Technological developments, once expected to bring about the end of the 5-day workweek, have had the opposite effect. These advancements have blurred the boundary between work life and personal life, making it trickier rather than easier to find the right work/home balance.

Best bets for a recuperative getaway
There's no need to break the bank at a pricey spa retreat to get the health benefits of vacation, but certain variables do improve your odds of returning home relaxed and recharged. Use the tips below to help plan a health-enhancing holiday you won't soon forget.

Aim for the lucky number 7. It usually takes people 2 to 3 days to really unwind and get into the groove of vacation time. Longer vacations are associated with greater psychological benefits than shorter ones, so try to plan a break that's at least 7 days long.

Pack your flip-flops (and your sunscreen). Sunny destinations are the way to go if you're looking for a vacation that'll soothe your soul and lift your spirits, according to some research. Just make sure the heat won't be too extreme, and don't forget to wear your sunscreen.

And going somewhere warm is not a deal breaker. Other factors that promote a sense of well-being on vacation include free time to do as you please (that means not trying to fit too much into your time off), exercise, lots of rest, and time spent getting to know new people.

Balance family and fancy-free. Spending time with family can be a great source of support and can foster a sense of belonging. But family vacations? They can be downright stressful. Nevertheless, if your family lives far away, vacation may be the only time you get to see them.

If you're planning to spend your break with relatives, make sure you set aside some time for yourself. And consider alternating your vacations between family and frivolity.

Leave the laptop. Fess up. Did you work during your last vacation?

If you think working while on vacation will make your return easier, think again. Compared with people who don't work during their vacations, those who do are more likely to feel overwhelmed when they return to work and are less likely to feel relaxed and energized.

Make your next vacation a work-free zone: Leave the laptop at home.

Enjoy some indulgences. It's your vacation. Splurge. Just try to avoid overindulging in food and alcohol. Excessive drinking and overeating may disrupt your sleep, upset your stomach, and leave you feeling worse for the wear.

So go ahead and enjoy the local cuisine, let your hair down, and have a good time. Just do so in moderation.

Remember to stay physically active while you're on vacation, too. That doesn’t mean you have to go to a gym or do full-on workouts. Take a walk to explore the area, go for a swim, or try your hand at something new and adventurous: windsurfing, rowing, golf, snorkeling, skiing, horseback riding—the possibilities are endless.

Be the boss. Most important: Take a vacation that suits your soul. When you're planning your next getaway, you may want to think back to some of the most memorable moments of previous vacations and choose a break with similar elements. Or consider a vacation that brings balance to your life. If you lead a hectic life, maybe a relaxing break would do you good. If you lead a calm life, an active or stimulating vacation might make for a refreshing change of pace.

Whether your ideal vacation involves lounging on a beach, hiking through the hills, or exploring the museums, early-morning markets, and historic sights of a foreign city, just make it happen. Doctor's orders.

Article sources open article sources

U.S. Travel Association. Paid Time Off Trends In The U.S. 2019.
Gump BB, Matthews KA. Are vacations good for your health? The 9-year mortality experience after the multiple risk factor intervention trial. Psychosom Med. 2000;62(5):608-612.
Blank C, Gatterer K, Leichtfried V, et al. Short Vacation Improves Stress-Level and Well-Being in German-Speaking Middle-Managers-A Randomized Controlled Trial. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(1).
de Bloom J, Geurts SAE, Kompier MAJ. Vacation (after-) effects on employee health and well-being, and the role of vacation activities, experiences and sleep. J Happiness Stud. 2013;14(2):613-633.
Hruska B, Pressman SD, Bendinskas K, Gump BB. Vacation frequency is associated with metabolic syndrome and symptoms. Psychol Health. 2020;35(1):1-15.

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