STUDIES SHOW THAT nearly half of workers in the United States don’t take the vacation time they’ve earned. Experts cite a variety of reasons, including technology — it’s harder to unplug and disengage from work. But doctors and psychologists say enjoying leisure time is necessary for both physical and mental health, especially if you make it part of your lifestyle.

“If we don’t take downtime, we have a constant barrage of stress hormones that flood the body,” says Karen R. Studer, M.D., program director, Preventive Medicine Residency Program, and an assistant professor, Schools of Medicine and Public Health, at Loma Linda University Health. She answers a few questions about the importance of chilling out. Why is downtime important to our bodies and minds? When we never take downtime, stress hormones become harmful. They decrease our ability to fight disease, increase our heart rate and breathing rate, tense our muscles and increase our blood sugar levels, which can lead to chronic diseases.

You say you’re a recovering workaholic. What made you decide to make changes in your life? When I conducted an exercise for an MBA class that compares one’s values, time and money. I said I most valued faith, family and health, yet all of my time was spent at work and school! How did you learn to incorporate downtime into your routine? I learned about Lifestyle Medicine and became board certified in this field. I systematically started to tackle its six pillars in my own life: substance use (for me this was caffeine), sleep, exercise, nutrition, stress and positive psychology. It took a shift in what I thought made a great employee and leader. I shifted my thoughts and expectations. For me, I now think a great employee and leader is someone who can take the time to really listen to and be present for patients, colleagues and family. When I feel like I can’t do that, I know it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate how I feel. How can we enjoy downtime if we’re worried about work? This can be difficult, especially if we think no one else can do as good of a job, or if you don’t work with people you trust to do the job while you are away. First, I had to realize that I am not that important.

The job will still be there, and everyone will do just fine without me. Also, you must have a good team that you trust at your company. Finding a job that you love with a boss and co-workers that can support you is rare. If you feel you don’t have that and are “stuck,” I think setting clear boundaries and expectations is important. For example, what do you want to hear about when you are on vacation? What do you not want to hear about? Set a friendly “out-of-office” auto reply that clearly states who else people can contact for immediate help, and include the date you’ll be returning.

What else can we do to relax? Ask for support. This is where family and community play a huge role in our health and well-being. In addition to asking for help from your community, here are some tips for free and low-cost things we can do to increase our well-being and unplug:

• Find a friend to work out with; use free videos on the internet or walk together.

• Find out what recreational activities your community has for free.

• Before sitting down to a meal, put all the phones away from the table.

• Create a daily and monthly self-care checklist. Use this to gauge your stress.

If you are unable to do daily self-care activities, you may not be getting enough sleep or may be too stressed at work. • Strategically plan your vacation time for the year and ask for the time off in advance so you will take it. • Spend time in nature. • Be the master of your phone. Turn off notifications when you are with family. • Practice deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), yoga, prayer or guided imagery techniques to help combat the chronic fight or flight we find ourselves in. These things elicit the relaxation response. Examples and videos can be found for free KAREN STUDER PHOTO COURTESY OF LLUH online through search engines.

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