Nutrition Notes

Vitamin V: Take a Vacation

No pain, no gain.
Put your nose to the grindstone.
The only place where “success” comes before “work” is a dictionary.

Some people can’t get enough of work. They’re proud members of the cult of “busyness,” worshipping at the altar of productivity, rushing from one critical task to the next. Being busy has become a status symbol in the modern world, but this go-go-go lifestyle has its downsides. A study out of Syracuse University published in Psychology & Health last month suggests that taking vacations is good for the heart and reduces risk for metabolic syndrome.

The study, “Vacation frequency is associated with metabolic syndrome and symptoms,” was relatively small (n = 63), but taken together with similar research it adds increased weight to something most people already know but often fail to put into practice: taking time off is good for you. Subjects were asked about their vacationing habits: during the previous 12 months, the average number of vacations taken was 5.44 (SD = 3.16), spread across a mean of about 14 days (SD = 7.25). As the number of vacations increased, incidence of metabolic syndrome decreased—each additional vacation day correlated with a nearly 25% decreased risk. In a bit of serendipity, this study was released the same day as one in the American Heart Association’s journal, Stroke, that found working long hours is associated with increased risk for stroke—as much as a 45% increased risk for participants who worked long hours for at least 10 years. (Long hours was defined as working 10 hours a day for at least 50 days per year.)

Several factors might explain this association. One is the healthy user bias: people who are healthy and physically fit may be more likely to take vacations—especially ones that involve lengthy travel, walking, sightseeing and other physical activities. Individuals who live with complications from metabolic syndrome (MetSyn) and its many comorbidities may not feel up to significant travel. A second factor potentially contributing to the association between higher frequency or duration of vacation and reduced risk for MetSyn could be that people who are busy at work all the time and rarely take time off may be less likely to cook food at home and more likely to buy breakfast and/or lunch from a workplace cafeteria or run out for fast food. These places certainly have nutritious choices available, but the stress of a busy day at the office might lead people to gravitate toward high sugar items or items that combine the trifecta of refined sugar, grains, and industrial seed oils—think donuts and pastries.

Other potential factors in this association may be greater levels of stress and less sleep. People who “live to work” or who are addicted to work are probably less likely to use all their vacation time and may also short themselves sleep in order to get to the office early or stay late. Short sleep has multiple endocrine effects, including decreased glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. Chronic psychological stress—for example, tight work deadlines or a high-pressure work environment—is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease as well as type 2 diabetes and MetSyn.

The Syracuse study mentions that 77% of American workers have paid vacation time available but less than half use all of it. The study excluded participants who had vacations planned for Thanksgiving or Christmas (when many people take time off as a matter of course), and also excluded schoolteachers and university faculty, because their vacation patterns may not be representative of the larger adult working population. It also excluded individuals with adrenal or pituitary disorders, and anyone taking medications that affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This is noteworthy because it’s a way to remove at least in part confounders regarding levels of stress hormones. 

It’s also important to note that participants rated vacations positively, expressing low levels of stress related to travel, childcare and finances. Findings might have been different if the participants had experienced increased stress due to family dynamics (it’s not easy to travel with multiple toddlers in tow!), or if they felt pressured to take a vacation that put strain on their budget. As with just about anything, it’s all about context. Depending on an individual’s or a family’s circumstances, a vacation that sounds great on paper can end up being a significant stressor and have the opposite of the intended effect.    

On balance, evidence indicates that taking more frequent vacations is good for health. This is something for high-achieving health-conscious people (including doctors!) to keep in mind when they’re in the middle of hustling, hustling, hustling.