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A 40-year study reveals the ideal amount of vacation needed to live longer

A vacation is worth more than a chance to relax in the sun.

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Taking a vacation is not only an opportunity to relax, see new places, and try new things — it may also help you live longer, according to research. In short, the more vacation is taken, the better.

According to a 40-year study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, individuals who took three weeks or more vacation in a year had lower rates of death compared to those who took shorter vacations.

The University of Helsinki, Finland, study included 1,222 middle-aged male executives born between 1919 and 1934 who were recruited into the study in 1974 and 1975. Participants had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, including smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, elevated triglycerides, glucose intolerance, or were overweight. They were split into two groups: a control group and an intervention group, the latter of whom regularly received medical advice. Overall, the intervention group saw a 46 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease than the control group.

“The harm caused by the intensive lifestyle regime was concentrated in a subgroup of men with shorter yearly vacation time,” said study author Timo Strandberg. “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.”

Another study, out of Syracuse University, confirmed why a vacation lengthens life: they're good for the heart.

“What we found is that people who vacation more frequently in the past 12 months have a lowered risk for metabolic syndrome and metabolic symptoms,” said study co-author Bryce Hruska. “Metabolic syndrome is a collection of risk factors for cardiovascular disease. If you have more of them, you are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease. This is important because we are actually seeing a reduction in the risk for cardiovascular disease the more vacationing a person does. Because metabolic symptoms are modifiable, it means they can change or be eliminated.”

The researchers reached this conclusion by analyzing the blood of and conducting interviews with 63 workers who were eligible for paid vacation. They note that although vacation time is available to nearly 80 percent of full-time employees, fewer than half used the benefit fully.

Mindful relaxation

Stress is a common contributor to many common diseases. One way to relieve stress is by regularly meditating. It turns out a vacation has similar effects, according to a study by scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the University of California, San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School. They found that “a resort vacation provides a strong and immediate impact on molecular networks associated with stress and immune pathways, in addition to short-term improvements in well-being, as measured by feelings of vitality and distress,” according to a summary of the study.

The study involved 94 healthy women, aged 30 to 60, 64 of whom were not regular meditators. Participants stayed at the same resort in California for six days, with half simply on vacation and the other half joining a meditation training program. A group of 30 experienced meditators who already enrolled in the retreat that week was also examined. Researchers collected blood samples and had participants fill out surveys before and after their stay, as well as a month and 10 months later. All of the participant groups showed improvements up to one month later, while the novice meditators had fewer symptoms of depression and less stress for longer than the non-meditating vacationers.

"It's intuitive that taking a vacation reduces biological processes related to stress," said study co-author Dr. Elissa S. Epel of the University of California, San Francisco, "but it was still impressive to see the large changes in gene expression from being away from the busy pace of life, in a relaxing environment, in such a short period of time."

Abstract:

Meditation is becoming increasingly practiced, especially for stress-related medical conditions. Meditation may improve cellular health; however, studies have not separated out effects of meditation from vacation-like effects in a residential randomized controlled trial. We recruited healthy women non-meditators to live at a resort for 6 days and randomized to either meditation retreat or relaxing on-site, with both groups compared with 'regular meditators' already enrolled in the retreat. Blood drawn at baseline and post intervention was assessed for transcriptome-wide expression patterns and aging-related biomarkers. Highly significant gene expression changes were detected across all groups (the 'vacation effect') that could accurately predict (96% accuracy) between baseline and post-intervention states and were characterized by improved regulation of stress response, immune function and amyloid beta (Aβ) metabolism. Although a smaller set of genes was affected, regular meditators showed post-intervention differences in a gene network characterized by lower regulation of protein synthesis and viral genome activity. Changes in well-being were assessed post intervention relative to baseline, as well as 1 and 10 months later. All groups showed equivalently large immediate post-intervention improvements in well-being, but novice meditators showed greater maintenance of lower distress over time compared with those in the vacation arm. Regular meditators showed a trend toward increased telomerase activity compared with randomized women, who showed increased plasma Aβ42/Aβ40 ratios and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) levels. This highly controlled residential study showed large salutary changes in gene expression networks due to the vacation effect, common to all groups. For those already trained in the practice of meditation, a retreat appears to provide additional benefits to cellular health beyond the vacation effect.
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