Warm up to just chillin'

July 12, 2004

"WHAT IF THEY realize they could do without me?" "What if my boss thinks I'm not giving 110 percent?" "How could I afford it on my budget?"

These are just some of the reasons people give for not using their vacation days. The average American worker takes a mere 10.2 days of paid leave, says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers surveyed last month for the travel Web site Expedia.com said they likely would not take three days of allotted vacation time this year, up from two days last year. One-quarter of them said they would take no vacation at all.

That's too bad, because their lives might depend on it. Middle-aged women who took vacations very infrequently (once every six years or less often) had eight times the risk of having a heart attack or dying of heart disease than those who took vacations more frequently, according to a follow-up on the Framingham Heart Study, started in 1948. And middle-aged men at high risk for coronary heart disease who took frequent vacations were more likely to live longer than those who didn't, according to a 2000 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine.

No one's suggesting Americans follow the European model of 25 to 30 vacation days a year, merely that they use all the time they are owed. And ditch the cell phone and e-mail check-ins, too.

On vacation, people spend less time watching TV and more time reading, according to decades of research by the American's Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland. They spend more time mending fences and reinforcing family relationships. Their brains have a chance to take a different path, perhaps to make those serendipitous leaps and eureka moments that lead to big boosts at work or at home.

Still, taking vacation time is a tough sell in America's hardscrabble work culture, especially in a soft, employer-friendly economy. And more and more people feel too much pressure to relax: 38 percent of adults say they "always" feel rushed; in 1971, only 22 percent said they felt that way, according to the University of Maryland project.

Parents find that hours spent shepherding their kids to events, then feeding everyone and maintaining a household and its budget leave only small pockets of time during the day for other pursuits.

But those pockets can add up: Free time is on the rise even during the work week, the Maryland researchers have found. And even a minute or two of quiet contemplation can work wonders.

Recognizing and taking advantage of cool-down time whenever one finds it, then, is not a luxury but a key to a healthier life.

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