February 16, 2014 in Features

Want to stay healthy? Take a vacation, study suggests

Josh Noel Chicago Tribune
 

The report doesn’t undertake any added science but simply synthesizes previous studies, and the involvement of an insurance company might be cause for skepticism, but a recently issued white paper reaches a conclusion always worth repeating: Travel is good for you.

The benefits are both mental and physical, the result of “physical activity, cognitive stimulation and social engagement,” according to the study, commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association, the Global Commission on Aging and the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

The report quotes previous studies concluding that women who vacation twice a year have a significantly reduced chance of heart attacks or coronary death. Similarly, “men who did not take an annual vacation were shown to have a 20 percent higher risk of death and about a 30 percent greater risk of death from heart disease,” the report says.

Even accounting for the obvious likelihood that people who can afford travel also have access to better health care, researchers have concluded that “vacationing is a restorative behavior with an independent positive effect on health.”

Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist and adjunct professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, said the mental benefits are clear and can help stave off such diseases as Alzheimer’s.

“When you expose your brain to an environment that’s novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts,” he explained. Those new and challenging situations cause the brain to sprout dendrites – dangling extensions – which Nussbaum said grow the brain’s capacity.

Brain growth certainly isn’t confined to travel – it can just as well be had by playing tennis, picking up a new hobby or going to the symphony – but travel is an ideal method.

“Travel by definition is dropping your brain into a place that’s novel and complex,” he said. “You’re stunned a little bit, and your brain reacts by being engaged, and you begin to process on a deep level.”

Engaging the brain through travel doesn’t need to be as dramatic as climbing a mountain in Asia or strolling the rainy streets of a medieval European capital; it can be as simple as a weekend road trip or going home from work by a different route.

“You just don’t want to be rote and passive,” Nussbaum said.


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