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Ten Healthy Reasons to Take a Vacation

The surf's calling, but if you're like many, you're feeling guilty about asking your boss for a little time off to relax--even though you desperately need it.

Not only do Americans get a meager amount of vacation time, they also tend not to use it all, according to Expedia.com's seventh annual Vacation Deprivation survey, conducted this spring.

Unsurprisingly, Americans got the least amount of vacation days per year among the countries surveyed, earning only 14 days vs. 24 days in Great Britain, 26 days in Germany, 30 days in Spain and 36 days in France.

And despite reporting an average of 14 vacation days this year, compared with 12 days in 2005, 35% of the more than 4,100 U.S. adults questioned said they will not use all of their time off, leaving an average of three days on the table.

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"Some people are fearful in this day and age about job security," says Munro Cullum, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. "There's a push for productivity, and that can make people really avoid taking a vacation. Some people just figure they'll relax when they retire."

Sound familiar? Your behavior may impress your boss, but medical experts say you're not doing your health any favors.

Workaholic Woes
Stress produces physiological changes in our bodies, including higher blood pressure and a surge in stress hormones, such as adrenaline, which can cause blood to clot and increase the risk of a heart attack. By working all of the time, you're constantly subjecting your body to these responses, says Dr. Harvey Simon, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and founding editor of the Harvard Men's Health Watch.

Likewise, Cullum says, stress can impair the hippocampal function, which is crucial for the acquisition of new information, such as names, facts, PIN numbers and meeting times.

It's not clear whether vacations cause better health or whether they are just an indicator of healthier lifestyles. But taking time off does appear to have physical and mental benefits.

A 2005 study that analyzed research on 1,500 Wisconsin women showed that those who took vacations more frequently were less likely to become tense or depressed. Those women also reported being more satisfied with their marriages.

Cathy McCarty, the study's principal investigator and a senior epidemiologist for the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, says vacations help ease tension, which can lead to depression. Not taking a break also seemed to indicate that women were not spending time focusing on their marriages.

Even worse, the findings showed that nearly one in five women in the study reported taking a vacation only once in six years.

"It's the whole work culture," McCarty says. "Even people who have worked for me come to me with this tone of, 'I'm sorry, but do you mind if I take a day off?' I tell them to go--it's better for their health."

The data are damning for workaholic men, too.

A 2000 analysis of the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial, a study of more than 12,000 men ages 35 to 57 at high-risk for coronary heart disease, showed that those who took regular annual vacations had a lower risk of death than those who skipped taking time off.

Dealing With Your Vacation
If you're out of practice when it comes to getting away, experts say there are a few things you can do to make sure that when you do take a vacation, it's a relaxing one.

First off, try not to leave for your vacation on a Friday straight from work. Lugging your suitcase to the office and rushing to finish a project before dashing to the airport in rush-hour traffic will cause unnecessary stress, Cullum says. Ease into your vacation by giving yourself a day to pack.

While a three-day weekend is better than nothing, consider whether it'll really be enough time for you to unwind and feel rested. If you need more time off, take it.

And always try to schedule your vacation during a slow period at work.

"If you're worrying about that deal going through at work, you're not in the moment," says Dr. Edythe Harvey, a psychiatrist with international psychiatric center The Menninger Clinic. "You're not allowing yourself that break from constant work to re-balance yourself."
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