We don't have to tell you that a good vacay helps you relax and reduce stress, but it turns out it also has massive health benefits. As in, it helps your body repair and recover on a cellular level, according to a new study published in Translational Psychiatry.
To study the "vacation effect," researchers whisked 94 women away for a week at a luxury resort in California. (Um, best scientific study group ever?) Half of them just enjoyed their vacation, while the other half took time each day to meditate, in addition to vacation activities. (See: 17 Powerful Benefits of Meditation.) Scientists then examined the subjects' DNA, looking for changes in 20,000 genes to determine which ones were most affected by the resort experience. Both groups showed a significant change post-vacation, and the biggest differences were found in genes that work to strengthen your immune system and mitigate responses to stress.
But really, we're curious as to why? Is there really that much of a difference between chilling with Netflix at home, and chilling with Netflix in a fancy hotel? Can our cells really appreciate 1,000-thread-count sheets? Elissa S. Epel, MD, the lead author and a professor in the school of medicine at the University of California - San Francisco, says yes. Her reasoning: Our bodies need a separate space and time from our daily grind to recover and rejuvenate on a biological level.
"We are seasonal creatures and it's natural to have periods of hard work and periods of rest and recovery. And 'vacation deprivation' seems to be a risk factor for early heart disease, among other health issues," she explains.
The good news is it doesn't have to be two weeks in Bermuda to count (though we won't sway you from taking that vacation). In fact, she doesn't think the type of vacation matters much at all. A short hike at a nearby national park can be cheaper than a cruise, and it may be every bit as good for your cells. (Plus, you need to visit these 10 national parks before you die anyway.)
"What matters is getting away, not where or how far you go. It's very likely that having days that are balanced with some 'vacation' moments in it — not constant doing and rushing — is even more important than a big getaway," she says. "And I suspect it also greatly matters who you are with as well!"
But, she points out, while both groups experienced health benefits, the meditation group showed the best and most sustained improvement. "The vacation effect alone eventually wears off, whereas the meditation training appeared to have lasting effects on well-being," she explains.
The moral of this story? If you can't take that trip to Bali just yet, keep saving your pennies—but take time out of your busy day to practice mindfulness. Meditation is like a mini-vacation as far as your cells are concerned, and you'll be better off for it both physically and mentally.