Physically active vacations are more re-energizing

Entering Golden, British Columbia

In the fall of 2009 my wife Daun and I went on a 5-day cycling trip through the Rocky Mountains. We had been invited to a wedding in Canmore (Alberta) one weekend, and another in Chase (British Columbia) the following weekend. The two cities are roughly 500km (300 miles) apart, and since we had a full week to make the trip, we decided to do it on our road bikes. Crossing the Rockies on a bike sounds pretty intense, and it certainly wasn’t easy, but luckily most of the trip was downhill (Canmore is about 1 mile above sea-level, while Chase is less than a quarter-mile above sea-level), and we had plenty of time, so we were able to take our time and really enjoy our ride.

People often talk about how difficult it is to maintain a healthy lifestyle while on vacation. Peter has written several posts on this topic in the past, including an excellent list of ways to be physically active when you are in locations that are not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. A cruise-ship is the perfect example – too much food, too much booze, and too little exercise. It’s fun for a day or two, but you wind up feeling like crap, and need a vacation to detoxify from your vacation. How fun is that? So when I went on vacation earlier this summer, I started to question why, out of all the things one could choose to do for a vacation, people would choose put themselves in an environment where they will have no choice but to eat unhealthy food, and perform very little physical activity – two things that are almost guaranteed to make them feel awful.

Daun taking a breather.

I thought a lot about this issue on my trip (6+ hours/day on a bike gives you a lot of time to think), and I realized that instead of taking vacations that pigeon-hole us into unhealthy behaviors like eating too much and moving too little, we would all obviously be better off to take vacations that force us to engage in healthy behaviors. Things like hiking, skiing, cycling and canoeing are not only healthy, but they’re cheap! That’s why Daun and I first started taking cycling vacations – we couldn’t afford to do much else! We took our first cycling vacation in 2008, when we setup shop at a small B&B in Picton, Ontario. Each day we would do a different short ride from our B&B – one day to some wineries (hence the below picture), one day to the beach, etc. It cost us almost nothing, and it was literally the best vacation I’ve ever had. And, after a few days of exercising and eating well (we made most of our own meals), we came home feeling completely re-energized.

A tasty way to end the day

Not surprisingly, limited evidence supports the idea that healthy vacations leave you feeling better than those characterized by gluttony and sloth. For example, Gerhard Strauss-Blasche and colleagues examined the links between vacation environment and recuperation in a study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine (yes, that’s a real journal). The study included 191 German males and females who filled out questionnaires within two weeks of returning from a short vacation. Post-vacation “recuperation” was assessed by quantifying how closely subjects agreed with the statement “In comparison to the 2 weeks before vacation, I now feel mentally fitter, feel more balanced and relaxed, can concentrate better during work, feel physically fitter,do my work more easily, am in a better mood, and feel more recuperated”.

So, what did the authors find? Physical activity during the trip was positively associated with post-vacation recuperation scores. In other words, the more physically active people were during their vacation, the more likely they were to feel recuperated upon their return. In fact, healthy behaviors including physical activity and adequate sleep accounted for 7% of the post-vacation recuperation.

Now of course this is only one study, and it only used questionnaire data, which is less than ideal (I would take this study with a huge grain of salt…). But I don’t think it’s surprising that people who engage in healthy behaviors during a vacation might feel better upon their return. So instead of looking at your vacation as a potential stumbling block to your healthy lifestyle, why not look at it as a chance to actually improve your healthy behaviors? And remember, that first glass of wine is always better after a day of cycling.

Travis

Strauss-Blasche G, Reithofer B, Schobersberger W, Ekmekcioglu C, & Marktl W (2005). Effect of vacation on health: moderating factors of vacation outcome. Journal of travel medicine, 12 (2), 94-101 PMID:15996454

This post was originally published on ObesityPanacea.com in September of 2009.

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