By Colleen Canney
From Live Right Live Well
Sure, taking time away from your job puts pressure on your work and your wallet. And as Americans, we seem to be particularly susceptible to a work-at-all-costs mindset: A study conducted by the Families and Work Institute found that nearly half of U.S. employees don't take all of their vacation days. But consider this the next time you're thinking of counting beans on a Saturday: Recent research shows that vacations -- even a day trip to the nearest beach or museum -- are essential to a healthy brain. Here's why:
Improves memory Vacations provide new experiences in a way your daily routine can't. And when you experience something new and unfamiliar, your brain responds by releasing dopamine into your hippocampus, the part of your noggin that creates memories, explains Dr. Russell Poldrack, professor of psychology and neurobiology and director of the Imaging Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. This memory boost may even help protect against Alzheimer's disease.
Increases creativity French and American researchers found that vacations improve problem-solving abilities, increase awareness of hidden connections, and encourage people to try new things -- all of which facilitate your mind's creativity.
Sharpens mental focus Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh reported that people with serious health conditions who took time for any leisure activity in the previous month had lower levels of stress hormones than those who didn't take a break. "When you're frazzled, your prefrontal cortex -- or the CEO of your behavior -- is so overwhelmed by stress that you actually lose your ability to focus," says Poldrack.
Boosts reaction time A study commissioned by Air New Zealand found that after just two to three days on vacation, people got more and higher-quality sleep both during and after their trip. The result: Reaction times improved by up to 80 percent. "We know that sleep has powerful effects on creation of memories and brain health," adds Poldrack.
Making the Most of Your Vacation
So what's the ideal vacation for a healthy brain? Consider the following:
Go far, far away. French researchers found that the more you're forced to adapt to a new environment, the greater your boost in creative genius.
Plan ahead. A stressful vacation will do more harm than good, negating any benefits your brain might otherwise derive. So make plans in advance to avoid rough roads and sketchy accommodations.
Schedule in free time, sleep and exercise. An Austrian study found that vacationers who made time for all three felt more recuperated after a vacation than those who didn't.
Disconnect. Researchers at Tel Aviv University found that people who kept office BlackBerrys on while vacationing were more likely to burn out and less likely to benefit from their time off than those who temporarily cut their ties with work.
Socialize. A study in the Journal of Travel Medicine concluded that making new friends on vacation decreases stress.
If You Can't Get Away
If a big overseas trip isn't in the cards this year, you can still get healthy brain benefits from a vacation nearby. Here's how:
Take mini-voyages. Even a short weekend trip can give your brain a memory-boosting jolt. And "simply going fishing at a local pond and packing a picnic basket can ease your mental stress," says Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Life Unlocked:7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear.
Go wild. No matter where you live, it's relatively easy to get outdoors for a Saturday hike or swim, suggests Poldrack. He points to recent research at the University of Michigan, which suggests that interacting with nature replenishes your brain's capacity to pay attention and process information.
Get a massage. University of Miami researchers found that massage leads to a 31-percent increase in dopamine -- the same chemical your brain emits when you go on vacation.
Organize a dinner debate. To improve your memory, "Do anything to switch up your routine," says Poldrack. "But it has to be challenging," he adds. "One interesting suggestion I've heard is having conversations with people you disagree with, or reading something you disagree with. You're doing things that take you outside of your normal comfort zone, which helps improve your memory." This in turn supports a healthy brain.
Above all, experts suggest that you forget the Joneses. "There is nothing worse than trying to fit your vacation ideals into a TV impression of what a vacation should be," says Pillay. "Rather than emulating someone else's experience of a vacation, create and cherish your own."
Colleen Canney is the associate editor of Live Right Live Well.
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