About three years ago, Seyeon Lee was invited by CenterState CEO, an economic development organization in Syracuse, to help design a women’s wellness center on the North Side of the city. Lee, an associate professor of environmental and interior design…
Vacations—and Vacation Behaviors—Can Improve Your Heart Health
Summer is vacation season, and here’s good news about those breaks from the daily grind: They’re not only fun, they’re also good for you.
Specifically, they’re good for your health, and even more specifically, your heart health. That was the conclusion reached in a study led by Bryce Hruska, an assistant professor of public health in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, and Brooks Gump, the Falk Family Endowed Professor of Public Health in the Falk College.
The study was published in June 2019 by Psychology & Health, the official journal of the European Health Psychology Society. In this Q&A, Hruska discusses the study and how it connects to our day-to-day lives, the benefits of a vacation vs. “staycation,” and why we still need to be cautious when traveling for a vacation.
01Can you describe how you gathered the data for your study and what you discovered?
This is a study that was conducted a few years ago. We brought in about 60 working adults from the Syracuse community who all had a vacation planned in the upcoming months. We asked them to come to our lab, where we did some bloodwork and took a variety of measures that served as indicators of cardiovascular health. In particular, we were looking at a set of risk factors for cardiovascular disease known as metabolic symptoms—things like high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels and excess weight.
What we predicted was that people who did more vacationing would have lower levels of these risk factors, and in fact that’s what we found. We asked people about their vacationing behavior over the prior year and we found that those people who took more vacations over the preceding year tended to have a lower number of those metabolic symptoms. They also had a lower incidence of having metabolic syndrome, which is when you have three or more metabolic symptoms.
02Just to clarify, we can reduce our metabolic symptoms–and therefore the risk of cardiovascular disease–simply by going on vacation?
The main takeaway from our study was that if you’re vacationing more frequently you may experience a heart-protective effect. One thing we’re trying to figure out is, what is it about a vacation that confers that protective effect? We demonstrated that people who are taking more vacations have this benefit, but what is it about vacations that are protecting the heart?
03What have you learned, or are still learning, that may help answer that question?
There’s some research that’s been done now that can help our understanding of what was happening in our study. For example, there’s a separate literature looking at the benefits of recovery behaviors more generally, and a vacation is a type of recovery behavior. In some ways, you might call a vacation a prototypical recovery behavior as it’s taking dedicated time away from work and away from your day-to-day activities.
But there are all types of recovery activities that we can do daily, such as exercising, or doing a hobby that we’re good at and feel good doing, or spending time with family or loved ones and connecting with people emotionally. There’s a lot of research suggesting that those types of experiences foster detachment from work, relaxation and what we call a sense of mastery, the positive feeling that results from engaging in a hobby or something that you’re good at.
If you do those things on a daily basis, after work, that can lead to better health. It hasn’t been tied specifically to cardiovascular health; that study hasn’t been done yet. However, it has been shown that when people engage in these types of activities, they report less stress and better mental health. It could be that you’re more likely to do those things when you go on vacation. But you can’t take vacations all the time, so it’s important to find ways to take the benefits that come from vacationing and get those benefits from things we’re doing daily.
Protecting against cardiovascular disease is a protracted endeavor. There are behaviors and things that we do every day that will lead to that protection. Eating a healthy diet, exercising—it’s these things that likely add up and accumulate over time. I think what we’re going to find is that vacationing and those recovery experiences that are associated with vacations are important and accumulate as well.
04Are the effects equally beneficial if you go away on vacation, or have a “staycation” at home?
I think the important part is trying to cultivate those experiences that I mentioned and there are different ways to do that. Traveling is one way to do it, and I think the reason that traveling has that effect is that it forces us to change our routine. We all have a routine to get ready for work, and it’s easy to slip back into thinking about work when we’re at home because we have all these cues that remind us of our work habits. Traveling is one way to break away from those cued behaviors.
But it’s not the only way. You can try to find ways to switch things up at home so you’re not thinking about work as much: take a break from checking work email, cut yourself off from work-related things, maybe just take a technology break, period. And do something that you don’t typically do, such as gardening outside at your house, going for a walk or visiting a park.
05People are more excited than ever about vacations because we were unable to travel for a year. But the pandemic is not over, and the Delta variant is causing a rise in COVID-19 cases. What advice would you give to people who want to travel for their next vacation?
I think it’s important to find ways to cultivate those experiences that I talked about, and one way to do that is a vacation in whatever way that looks like for you. With increased rates of vaccination, people are traveling more. If traveling, I think we need to be mindful of the COVID transmission rate in the places we are going or in the places we might stop along the way, if driving, and take appropriate steps to protect yourself and others. There’s a lot we don’t know, and information is changing so rapidly. A good resource to consult is the travel guidelines that the CDC offers.
Related Research: Hruska’s most recent study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders and summarized in a Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion research brief, showed that emergency medical service (EMS) workers face triple the risk for significant mental health problems such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder compared to the general population. The study also showed that daily mental health symptoms for EMS workers can be reduced through recovery activities such as exercising, socializing with other people and finding meaning in the day’s challenges.