August 19, 2019

People who use their vacation days are less likely to develop metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, according to a study published in Psychology & Health, Rebecca Voelker writes in a JAMA Medical News & Perspectives piece.

Read the case studies to learn how progressive hospitals are developing metabolic programs

Voelker was not involved in the study.

Study details

While almost three quarters of all workers in the United States have paid vacation time, few people use all of their time off, Voelker writes. Put another way, Voelker writes, many people are forfeiting time off to spend more time at work.

It's commonly believed that time off from work is associated mental and physical health benefits, Voelker writes. But there's little existing research on the topic.

That's why a team of researchers set off to determine how vacation time, or lack thereof, might impact workers' health. The researchers surveyed 63 adult participants, about half of whom worked in health care or education, about their vacations. For the purposes of the survey, the researchers defined a vacation as at least one day of paid time off they'd taken during the last 12 months.

The researchers then created an assessment tool that included 11 other variables—in addition to the frequency with which workers took a vacation—that could influence the quality of workers vacation, such as:

  • Activities;
  • Alcohol use;
  • Cost and financial stress;
  • Level of disengagement from work and personal responsibilities;
  • Location, meaning whether the participant went away or vacationed at home;
  • Sleep habits;
  • Social context, meaning who joined the participant on the vacation; and
  • Time and stress involved in traveling to the vacation site.

The researchers measured the participants for symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including large waist circumference, hypertension, elevated triglyceride levels, low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and elevated blood glucose.

Taking more vacations could reduce metabolic disease risk

On average, the participants took about five vacations, used about 14 paid vacation days, and spent 40% of their vacation days at home.

Voelker writes that participants' vacations were found to be mostly "pleasant, with little stress." In addition, patients reported that they slept well and drank very little alcohol during vacations.

When it came to the association between metabolic syndrome and vacation days, the researchers found that vacation time is associated with a lower risk of metabolic symptoms.

Every additional vacation day was associated with a 24% reduced risk of metabolic syndrome and an 8% decrease in the number of metabolic symptoms.

The researchers found that vacation location was also associated with participants' risk of metabolic syndrome.

Among participants who spent their vacation outside of their homes, the probability of meeting the criteria for metabolic syndrome was 38%, compared with 11% for participants who spent about half of their vacations at home.

Is stress the key?

The results of the study suggest that taking more time away from work decreased participants' risk of metabolic syndrome, Voelker writes.

"Anecdotally people say vacations are relaxing, so the thought is that if you vacation more frequently you've got a reduction in stress and associated physiological arousal and that may translate into fewer of these metabolic symptoms," according to leady study author Bryce Hruska, an assistant professor at Syracuse University. "I think the important part is that you're using your vacation in whatever way is best for you."

However, the study did come with limitations.

Since the study was performed retrospectively, the researchers said it was difficult to determine whether taking time off reduced the participants' risk of metabolic syndrome, or if their metabolic syndrome status impacted their vacationing.

The study authors said more research is needed to determine whether vacationing is associated with the risk of metabolic syndrome (Voelker, JAMA Network, 8/14; "Metabolic Syndrome," mayoclinic.org, accessed 8/16; Hruska et al., Psychology & Health, 6/17; "Bryce Hruska," syr.edu, accessed 8/16).

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