A few years ago I went to see my doctor. He said the words we all long to hear: “You need a holiday.” Of course I did. Stressed from work and life matters, I’d been getting lots of opportunistic bugs and sicknesses, and was visiting him every other week about something or other.
But it was still wonderful to be given permission. “Yes, I do need a holiday,” I concurred. “I’m thinking a week in the sun up north.” He shook his head. “No, not a short beach holiday, a significant travel break. Something that takes you out of the country and away from everything familiar and stimulates your mind. You need at least three weeks in Europe or India. Have you ever done Vietnam and Cambodia?”
My response was predictable. I gave him all the reasons I couldn’t do that. As a freelancer I couldn’t take that much time off work, didn’t have the money to afford overseas travel, I had no one to cat-sit … just not possible.
But he persisted and what he said stayed with me. “I can’t help with the cat-sitting, but I can alleviate your money or work concerns by telling you that I calculate my patients save at least $3000 to $5000 in medical expenses per holiday they take. So you either take the holiday or pay the doctor.
“If you look at what you’ve already spent visiting me these past few months, you will be surprised.” Yes, there were his fees, a specialist he referred me to, blood tests and an ultrasound, several medicines, not to mention the time travelling to appointments and in waiting rooms that would have been spent on my clients. “And you are young and healthy,” he said. “With my older clients the impact of worries and stress is much more corrosive on their bodies and immune systems.”
He reminded me of the importance of brain health as well. Tired people can trip over or have car accidents; anxiety can mess with relationships; stressed people make wrong turns and bad decisions. Taking a break, getting refreshed, opening the mind, can replenish the soul and make daily functioning more efficient.
“Take a holiday, blow some money. You’ll save yourself time and money in the long run. It’s an investment,” he insisted.
At the time, about a decade ago, his views were unusual. Nowadays they are mainstream as medical professionals advocate that taking holidays and time out is not self-indulgent but the ultimate health tonic.
With advanced image technology and tests we can see the degree to which we are a complex biological soup governed by hormones and chemicals. When we deplete our natural reserves through anger, burnout or stress, we can be left with a compromised immune system that can lead to illness, disease and premature ageing. Cortisol is corrosive. Chronic depression or the deficiency of feel-good chemicals in the brain such as dopamine is linked to Parkinson’s disease, early onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Time out gives us a chance to rejuvenate. University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson found that people who felt happy developed 50 per cent more antibodies to the flu vaccine than unhappy people.
Repeated studies have shown contentment can reduce the risk or limit the severity of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, colds and upper respiratory infections. A Dutch study of elderly patients showed those in upbeat mental states enjoyed up to a 50 per cent reduced risk of premature death.
So rested and relaxed is the optimal state. Holidays also increase work productivity by significant amounts, which is why employers should encourage regular breaks.
According to corporate studies, an unhappy and unhealthy workforce can cost an average-sized company up to $250,000 a year in sick pay and costs associated with resignations and rehiring.
Holidays away keep us well in many ways. A recent study by researchers at the University of Maryland showed the sort of joyous, childlike belly laughter most of us do regularly during the antics and dramas of travel help release nitric oxide, which in turn triggers endorphins, dopamine and other mood-enhancing chemicals or hormones that keep us well.
Deep breathing when we walk around sightseeing has the same effect, and what we see and do provides a hormone hit of excitatory chemicals such as adrenalin and an increase in oxygen levels that can be a great stimulant to the immune system, kickstarting the production of new cells.
The value of all that brisk walking, climbing or swimming can’t be underestimated in improving our cardiovascular system and bone health and clearing brain fog.
And often, though not always, diet is improved and can lead to weight loss, though in my case the food I was eating recently in Europe was better for my soul than my thighs.
Walking outdoors exposes us to increased sunlight and vitamin D, essential for bone health.
And talking of exercise, when we travel we often go with a loved one. I heard a talk at a conference on longevity by professor of integrative medicine Marc Cohen that revealed recent experiments on rats had shown that sex increases neurons in the brain. Intimacy also increases excretion of the cuddle chemical oxytocin and serotonin — the feel-good drugs we need to keep us ticking away.
But if you are not with a partner, don’t despair. There’s always the massage and pampering that comes with holidays, with studies showing that skin stimulation can trigger release. It is not just whimsical to stay well pampered by a partner or ourselves. While low serotonin levels are linked to weakened immune function and depression, raised levels are a fountain of youth, more so since serotonin stimulates melatonin for that much needed catch-up on sleep in our big comfy hotel beds — sleep being one of the most important contributors to vital good health.
But the most important health benefits of holiday come from invigoration to the brain.
Prominent neuroscientist and University of California professor Michael Merzenich teaches that we need to keep doing and learning new things — breaking out of our comfort zone, out of the box of habit and pattern — for our brains to grow new synapses and regulate our bodies to stay healthy. To this end, travel keeps the brain agile and learning makes us fitter inside and out.
Memory is being forced to work hard, learning new words, problem solving, adapting. And many stimulatory hormones and chemicals are released when we travel because we experience high-voltage emotions, which is why we often may come home and paint or do something creative — a holiday can give us a shot of clarity, new ideas for our careers and an energy boost.
Doctor’s orders: Taking a holiday is not a luxury — it’s good sound medicine. Book that ticket without guilt.
Seriously? What a load of rubbish.
Overseas travel is essential for your health? I’d love to see the”doctor” come to the school where I work, and tell that to the teachers, the teacher-aides and the cleaners.
I think what the patient really needed was a dose of reality – what a cloistered world view!
@Matt Actually Matt, a holiday in another country as suggested in the written piece is not as silly as it sounds. Getting an entirely different perspective on how the other half lives or in this case other races and cultures in a different or”real” setting, will or should encourage Australians to really appreciate their lot in life.
@John Yes, we are importing third world violence, conflict, corruption and thinking as we speak. You have the Australian government and the immigration department to thank.