4 Reasons Your Brain Needs a Vacation
BY: Colleen Canney
Sure, taking time away from your job puts pressure on your work and your wallet. And as Americans, we seem to be particularly susceptible to a work-at-all-costs mindset: A study conducted by the Families and Work Institute found that nearly half of U.S. employees don’t take all of their vacation days. But consider this the next time you’re thinking of counting beans on a Saturday: Recent research shows that vacations -- even a day trip to the nearest beach or museum -- are essential to a healthy brain. Here’s why:
Improves memory Vacations provide new experiences in a way your daily routine can’t. And when you experience something new and unfamiliar, your brain responds by releasing dopamine into your hippocampus, the part of your noggin that creates memories, explains Dr. Russell Poldrack, professor of psychology and neurobiology and director of the Imaging Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. This memory boost may even help protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
Increases creativity French and American researchers found that vacations improve problem-solving abilities, increase awareness of hidden connections, and encourage people to try new things -- all of which facilitate your mind’s creativity.
Sharpens mental focus Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh reported that people with serious health conditions who took time for any leisure activity in the previous month had lower levels of stress hormones than those who didn’t take a break. “When you’re frazzled, your prefrontal cortex -- or the CEO of your behavior -- is so overwhelmed by stress that you actually lose your ability to focus,” says Poldrack.
Boosts reaction time A study commissioned by Air New Zealand found that after just two to three days on vacation, people got more and higher-quality sleep both during and after their trip. The result: Reaction times improved by up to 80 percent. “We know that sleep has powerful effects on creation of memories and brain health,” adds Poldrack.
Making the Most of Your Vacation
So what’s the ideal vacation for a healthy brain? Consider the following:
- Go far, far away. French researchers found that the more you’re forced to adapt to a new environment, the greater your boost in creative genius.
- Plan ahead. A stressful vacation will do more harm than good, negating any benefits your brain might otherwise derive. So make plans in advance to avoid rough roads and sketchy accommodations.
- Schedule in free time, sleep and exercise. An Austrian study found that vacationers who made time for all three felt more recuperated after a vacation than those who didn’t.
- Disconnect. Researchers at Tel Aviv University found that people who kept office BlackBerrys on while vacationing were more likely to burn out and less likely to benefit from their time off than those who temporarily cut their ties with work.
- Socialize. A study in the Journal of Travel Medicine concluded that making new friends on vacation decreases stress.
If You Can’t Get Away
If a big overseas trip isn’t in the cards this year, you can still get healthy brain benefits from a vacation nearby. Here’s how:
- Take mini-voyages. Even a short weekend trip can give your brain a memory-boosting jolt. And “simply going fishing at a local pond and packing a picnic basket can ease your mental stress,” says Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Life Unlocked:7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear.
- Go wild. No matter where you live, it’s relatively easy to get outdoors for a Saturday hike or swim, suggests Poldrack. He points to recent research at the University of Michigan, which suggests that interacting with nature replenishes your brain’s capacity to pay attention and process information.
- Get a massage. University of Miami researchers found that massage leads to a 31-percent increase in dopamine -- the same chemical your brain emits when you go on vacation.
- Organize a dinner debate. To improve your memory, “Do anything to switch up your routine,” says Poldrack. “But it has to be challenging,” he adds. “One interesting suggestion I’ve heard is having conversations with people you disagree with, or reading something you disagree with. You’re doing things that take you outside of your normal comfort zone, which helps improve your memory.” This in turn supports a healthy brain.
Above all, experts suggest that you forget the Joneses. “There is nothing worse than trying to fit your vacation ideals into a TV impression of what a vacation should be,” says Pillay. “Rather than emulating someone else’s experience of a vacation, create and cherish your own.”
Colleen Canney is the associate editor of Live Right Live Well.
Recipe of the Week
- Greek yogurt has twice the protein of regular yogurt because it takes 3 to 4 times more milk to make it. Celebrate June Dairy Month with Greek yogurt topped with fresh berries.
- Bok Choy, also known as Chinese cabbage or pak choi, has been grown in China for over 6,000 years. Choose firm stalks, avoiding brown spots and wilted leaves, and add to stir-fry.
- Apple skin is full of fiber & Alzheimerâ€™s-disease-fighting antioxidants -- so eat it! Refrigerate in a plastic bag away from foods with strong odors; they absorb odors easily.
- Collards, mustard greens and kale are available in bags, pre-washed & chopped -- so theyâ€™re easy to steam or saute! Eat your greens as a side dish or in quesadillas, soups & stews.
- Avocados are rich in 20 nutrients and great beyond guacamole. Chop for a ham, egg and cheese wrap; slice for a deli roast beef sandwich; cube and toss into linguini and shrimp.
- Black-eyed Peas: Fresh, canned and frozen varieties are all nutrient-rich options -- making it easier to eat your daily veggies. Rinse and drain canned peas to cut down on salt.
- Ugli Fruit, beautiful benefits! Peel & eat for fiber & vitamin C. Choose fruit heavy for size; dents normal and color not important. Store on counter 5 days or refrigerate 2 weeks.
- Radicchio, also known as Italian chicory, is high in vitamin K for bone health. Great in salads: Choose bright, tender leaves; avoid brown or limp ones. Refrigerate up to 3 days.
- Cherimoya, a high-fiber tropical fruit, tastes like a mix of strawberry and mango. Choose firm, unblemished fruit, cut in wedges and spoon out creamy flesh.
- Kale in lentil soup is a double dose of New Yearâ€™s luck! Round-shaped lentils symbolize coins; kale, paper money. Both are packed with antioxidants for a year of healthy fortune.
- Tea is native to China, but Americans invented tea bags and first drank iced tea at the 1904 St. Louis Worldâ€™s Fair. Enjoy hot and reap health benefits from both black & green tea.
- Dried Plums (formerly prunes) may help prevent cancer and decrease inflammation. Slice fruit, stuff with cheese and walnuts, and wrap in prosciutto to make quick party appetizers.
- Oatmeal month is officially January. Cook breakfast oatmeal with 1% milk for extra protein, calcium and vitamin D -- or enjoy whole-grain oatmeal raisin cookies as a smart snack.
- Spices and herbs add antioxidants to every dish. One tsp. ground cinnamon contains as many antioxidants as 1/2 cup blueberries; 1 tsp. yellow curry as many as 1/2 cup red grapes.
- Fish, the best source of omega-3 fats for heart and brain health, may even help ward off depression. Mix canned white tuna, salmon and sardines for an omega-rich seafood salad.
- Orange juice is filled with immune-boosting nutrients that fight colds and the flu: vitamins C and B6, folate, potassium and magnesium. Choose 100% juice with no added sugar.
- Walnuts are a significant source of plant-based omega-3 fats. These fats -- also in ground flaxseed, canola oil and edamame -- provide many heart-healthy benefits.
- Pear, apple and Asian pear slices + yogurt-based dips = winning strategy for game-day parties. Combine Greek vanilla yogurt with chocolate-hazelnut spread for a fast, healthy dip.
- Pumpkin and sweet potato -- fresh, mashed or canned -- adds disease-fighting antioxidants to waffles and pancakes. Use whole-wheat flour to double your fiber and nutrient intake.
- Snack smart to achieve weight loss goals. Choose fast and fully edible fruits like grapes, apples, persimmon and kiwi. Yes, fuzzy kiwi skin is edible! Simply wash and rub dry.
What kind of water do you usually drink?