How Taking Vacation Actually Improves Your Health, According to Doctors

Daydreaming of a vacation? Experts offer six compelling ways your body will thank you for booking time off. (Turns out, there's scientific truth behind that post-vacation glow.)

How A Vacation Can Actually Improve Your Health
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Among advanced economies around the world, the US stands out in one troubling way, according to The Center for Economic and Policy Research. The center refers to America as the “No Vacation Nation” with a workaholic culture that contributes to increased stress levels, lower well-being, and physical health problems like heart disease, says Joyce Marter, LCPC, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life.

“Not taking vacations means we are perpetually on the hamster wheel of work and life responsibilities,” Marter says. Lacking any break from our daily routines can cause us to live unconsciously, staying stuck in jobs or relationships that are no longer a good fit for us. On the other hand, vacationing encourages a range of health benefits, with research showing time off can actually help you live longer.

And while we’re all for scheduling that getaway of your dreams, the benefits of taking time off don’t necessarily require geographic travel, explains Erin Engle, PsyD, a psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Any form of a break can be beneficial, as time off represents physical and emotional time away from life’s routines,” Dr. Engle explains.

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1. What a vacation does for your nervous system

Studies show that vacations work to reduce stress by removing people from the activities and environments they associate with stress and anxiety, Dr. Engle says. “The results on physical and mental health are clear as more cortisol, more stress, the physical toll of exhaustion, in some cases lack of sleep, in addition to mental taxation, can result in low mood and burnout.”

She adds that the positive effects of planned breaks have been shown to last beyond the duration of the vacation.

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2. What a vacation does for your heart

Research consistently shows that vacation is not just good for the soul—it supports a healthy heart. A 2019 public health study found that taking more frequent breaks from work lowers our risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms such as high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure—that work together to contribute to heart disease.

Even a one-week vacation, particularly if it includes some sort of exercise, has been shown to improve well-being, sleep quality, and autonomic regulation of heart rate, says Gioia Turitto, MD, a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. “Although any vacation is better than no vacation, longer vacations, defined as more than three weeks of annual time off, may be associated with less risk for cardiac deaths.”

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3. What a vacation does for your waistline

Taking more time off work may help with better weight management, too. Research shows that ongoing stress can worsen our metabolic health, explains Rekha Kumar, MD, Chief Medical Officer at weight care program, Found, and practicing endocrinologist in New York City. “This is because there is a strong connection between stress and inflammation,” Dr. Kumar explains. “Chronic stress can lead to overeating, weight gain, and increased visceral adiposity, or fat associated with the organs.”

Dr. Kumar says it can be great to treat yourself while on holiday (smaller Italian portions of pasta and gelato are so satisfying!). However, especially if you go the all-inclusive route, be mindful not to go overboard on decadent meals and high-calorie cocktails.

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4. How vacation affects your chronic disease risk

Dr. Kumar explains: “If we are chronically stressed and our cortisol continues to be high, both blood sugar and blood pressure will stay high, which are two key components of metabolic syndrome.”

Research, such as one 2021 study, shows this constant state of stress raises your risk of not just heart disease, but also diabetes, obesity, various cancers, and mood disorders, like anxiety and depression.

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5. What vacation does to your brain

“Cognitive flexibility, or the brain’s ability to think creatively about problem-solving or adapt to new, changing, or unplanned events, can be harnessed or strengthened by vacations and break periods because we get the benefit of detaching from a more typical view of work life and our personal lives,” Dr. Engle explains. Training this part of our brain can do wonders for our mental health, “given that we can think differently—or even hold different assumptions about our lives or a situation when we have the space or capacity to think differently,” she says.

Greater cognitive flexibility is also associated with a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and unhealthy weight gain. In addition, vacation time leads to increased productivity, focus, motivation, and goal-oriented behavior once we get back to our normal lives, Dr. Engle says.

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6. What a vacation does for your skin

There’s scientific truth behind that post-vacation glow. Chronic stress shows up on our skin in the form of inflammatory breakouts, redness and sensitivity, dryness, and flare-ups of conditions like eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis, says Kemunto Mokaya, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Texas. Cortisol—the stress hormone—is also associated with accelerated aging, she explains. “When too much of it is released, it starts breaking down collagen and elastin, essential proteins that maintain skin elasticity and firmness. This can lead to the formation of wrinkles, fine lines, and sagging skin.” She adds that stress also affects blood flow and oxygen delivery to the skin, often responsible for a dull, tired complexion.

Still, while letting your worries melt away does wonders for your skin, it’s important to protect your complexion from potential holiday stressors. Make sure to wear plenty of sunscreen, cleanse effectively, drink enough water to maintain skin hydration, and nourish your skin with healthy foods, Dr. Mokaya says.

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Sources

People:

Joyce Marter, LCPC, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life

Erin Engle, PsyD, psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center

Gioia Turitto, MD, a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital

Rekha Kumar, MD, Chief Medical Officer at weight care program, Found, and practicing endocrinologist in New York City

Kemunto Mokaya, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Texas

Websites:

The Center for Economic and Policy Research: "No-Vacation Nation, Revised"

Journals:

Psychology & Health: "Vacation frequency is associated with metabolic syndrome and symptoms"

Endocrines: "The Stress Axis in Obesity and Diabetes Mellitus: An Update"

Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences: "Impact of stress on metabolism and energy balance"

Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging: "Disentangling the Links between Psychosocial Stress and Cardiovascular Disease"

Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience: "Distinct Relationship Between Cognitive Flexibility and White Matter Integrity in Individuals at Risk of Parkinson's Disease"

Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience: "Executive Functions in Alzheimer Disease: A Systematic Review"

Nutrients: "Do Overweight People Have Worse Cognitive Flexibility? Cues-Triggered Food Craving May Have a Greater Impact"

Medically reviewed by Latoya Julce RN, BSN, on June 06, 2023

Leslie Finlay, MPA
In addition to The Healthy, Leslie has written for outlets such as WebMd.com, Fodors.com, LiveFit.com, and more, specializing in content related to healthcare, nutrition, mental health and wellness, and environmental conservation and sustainability. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy focused on the intersection between public health and environmental conservation, and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Leslie is based in Thailand, where she is a marine conservation and scuba diving instructor. In her spare time you'll find her up in the air on the flying trapeze or underwater, diving coral reefs.