Recuperation vs. Exhausted

By: Hilary Mujikwa

Sure, vacations can be hazardous to your health: Beachgoers get sunburned, campers get poison ivy, air travelers get headaches. But stay home, as record numbers may be doing this summer, and your health could suffer much more.

"Vacation deprivation," as it has been dubbed by Expedia.com, has been spreading for years as Americans' vacations get shorter or are skipped entirely. But this year's high travel costs, flying hassles and spooky economy may be creating a "perfect storm" that keeps people hunkered down as never before, says Geoffrey Godbey, professor emeritus in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management at Pennsylvania State University.

(Even before the summer of $4-a-gallon gas arrived, a record-low 39% of Americans said in April that they planned a vacation trip in the next six months, says the non-profit Conference Board.)

The possible health toll:

•More heart disease and death. Middle-aged men who were at high risk of heart disease were 20% less likely to die of any ca use and 50% less likely to die of a heart attack over nine years if they took frequent vacations, a study published in 2000 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found.

•Poorer sleep. People not only sleep better during vacations, but they also keep sleeping=2 0better afterward, some studies show.

•More tension, depression, fatigue and marital strain, at least for women, according to one study of 1,500 women in rural Wisconsin, published in 2005 by researchers from the Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic.

"Vacation is not a frill," says Joe Robinson, a life coach and author who founded Work to Live, a group that advocates for more leisure time.

But one in four American workers get no paid holidays or vacation time, a 2007 study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research showed. The average worker gets 14 paid days off but works three of those days, an Expedia survey found. That survey found Europeans also give up a few vacation days but have more to squander: 26 in Great Britain, 33 in Italy and 37 in France.

The vacation gap has been proposed as one reason Americans are not as healthy as Europeans.

Why vacation might have that power is not clear. But studies do show "people walk more, they watch TV less, they read more and they talk to each other more" while on a trip, Godbey says. Some eat better, too. And vacationers literally slow down: They stroll along the golf course instead of racing through it; they stop and taste the berries at a fruit stand instead of rushing through a supermarket.

Studies have to yet to show how long a vacation must be to boost=2 0health. Also unknown: the benefits of a "staycation," in which people take time off at home. "The idea makes me cringe," Robinson says. "If you stay home, it's not a vacation."

Cathy McCarty, the researcher who led the study of rural Wisconsin women, isn't so sure. One friend, she says, takes off one week each summer just to garden. "That's absolutely a vacation for him." She is more worried about the 20% of women in her study who had no vacation in six years.

Godbey says he just hopes people with tight budgets will consider low-cost options — such as Tours to Africa or Mexico to beat the high euro— before staying home this summer: "The people who need a vacation most may be most likely to cancel."

Have a travel question or story? E-mail robert@lojtravel.com Please include your nameScience Articles, city and phone number. Selected questions will be answered and stories published online.

READERS: When was the last time you took a vacation? Do you think time off is a matter of physical or mental health? Share your views and experiences below.

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