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Why holidays are good for you

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You are never too late or too busy to book that summer holiday. Research shows that taking a break brings big health benefits – and may even help us live longer. Here’s some benefits you can expect to reap if you start planning today, says Madeleine Bailey

Reduced risk of a heart attack
Women who take a holiday at least twice a year are almost eight times less likely to have a heart attack than those who only pack up their troubles once every six years according to findings from the ongoing Framingham Heart study. This finding, from the ongoing US Framingham Heart Study, which, is regardless of risk factors such as obesity, diabetes and smoking.

Part of the reason could be that holidays can help lower blood pressure. For example, a study by Kuoni Travel and Nuffield Health found that a group of holiday makers lowered their blood pressure by six per cent, while those who stayed at home experienced a two per cent rise. Other benefits included reduced blood sugar, better sleep and quicker recovery from stress.

Better mental health
A study at the University of Pittsburgh’s Mind-Body Centre of more than 1,000 women found that those who’d taken part in at least 10 leisure activities, including holidays, in the previous month had a more positive mind-set, lower levels of stress hormones, lower levels of depression and even slimmer waists than those who hadn’t!

Professor Cary Cooper, a leading psychologist at Manchester University says: “Holidays give us an important break from the constant pressure of daily life and allow us to bond with the people who matter to us. They help us put worries into context and prevent a build-up of anxiety, making us more resilient when we return.”

Sounder sleep
According to a study carried out by Air New Zealand and NASA, people got three times more deep, restorative sleep when they returned from their holiday than before they set out. This has to be good news, as poor sleep is associated with raised risk of diabetes, heart disease, strokes and obesity. 

“Stress and anxiety cause higher levels of the hormone cortisol, which affects sleep quality. When we’re relaxed on holiday, cortisol levels tend to rise and dip in tune with our natural body clock, so we feel sleepy at night and awake in the day,” explains Simon Williams from the Sleep Council. “We’re also less likely to use mobiles and tablets before bed. The blue light they emit suppresses production of melatonin, the sleep hormone,” he adds.

Smoother skin
While too much exposure to the sun’s UV rays is known to increase the risk of skin cancer, some sun can be good for certain skin problems. Dr Anton Alexandroff of the British Association of Dermatologists explains: “UVB rays damp down the immune system, which is overactive in conditions such as psoriasis and dermatitis. However, it’s important to avoid burning. Not only does burning increase risk of skin cancer, trauma to the skin can actually trigger a psoriasis flare-up. If in doubt, ask your doctor’s advice.”

“The de-stressing effects of a holiday may also be beneficial. “There’s strong anecdotal evidence that skin conditions including acne become worse with stress. This could be because the stress hormone cortisol triggers hormonal changes that may affect the skin,” he adds.

More sex
Couples are four times more likely to have sex on holiday than at home, according to a survey on nearly 1,500 Brits by UK online travel agent Reasons given include more quality time and relaxation, but it may also be down to the action of sunlight on the skin which boosts production of vitamin D. This has been found to increase men’s levels of testosterone, the hormone responsible for libido as well as improving fertility. 

Other studies show that sex can boost immunity, while simply hugging your partner can lower blood pressure.

Makes you smarter
Enjoying new experiences gives us a different perspective on life, but a holiday can also provide a great opportunity to learn a new skill such as sailing, scuba diving, yoga or even a language: thus, improving our brain health. The reason? The learning process stimulates the brain to form new connections. In an Edinburgh University study for example, people who spoke more than one language were found to score higher in IQ tests in later life than would be expected, based on their childhood IQ levels. The study results suggested “a protective effect of bilingualism against age-related cognitive decline.” So, get that phrase book out!

5 ways to keep that holiday feeling all year long...

• Find recipes for your favourite holiday dishes and recreate them at home.
• Get a daily dose of fresh air – walk or cycle to work or go for a stroll at lunchtime.
• Try a new hobby or activity – holidays are a great way to sample something you can carry on doing at home.
• Ditch the smartphone and spend the day with family or friends. Scheduling regular ‘switch off’ time will help you keep stress under control.
• Plan your next break. A study from Cornell University in the US found that we derive more happiness from anticipating an experience such as travel than owning new things.

The Nutrition Expert editorial team compiles articles with the help of Healthspan's experts to answer key questions from our community as well as researching common health topics and news.

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