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Are you taking the right vacations? How to make the most of your down time

Mother, father and child holding hands lifting child into the air while standing in the ocean.

Though Dr. Anita Chakravarti did not know it at the time, a family vacation she took some 20 years ago would change her life forever.

Dr. Chakravarti — a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, retired anesthesiologist and CEO of the health and wellness company [M]POWER Mindful Professional Practice — had gone on a three-week road trip with her husband and children through British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

“We never had a downtime holiday,” she said. This one was packed with activities like hiking, and on the way home they stopped to visit friends.

“My friend had organized a trail horsehide with our kids.… I said, ‘None of us want to go. It’s too hot. We just want to stay around and sit in the pool,’” Dr. Chakravarti said.

But her friend insisted.

“I didn’t listen to what I was feeling and I let her talk me into it — and I was the one who got thrown,” she said.

Dr. Chakravarti was bucked off and suffered a neck and back injury. Instead of returning to her busy career feeling fresh, she found herself in severe pain, which affected her work and has stayed with her ever since.

Knowing how to take the right kind of vacation can be difficult. It is especially challenging for doctors, who are often Type A personalities unused to taking it easy. But not taking time to rest and restore both body and mind can lead to long-term physical, mental and emotional problems.

The longer the vacation, the better

“Any vacation is better than no vacation, [but] the longer the better,” said Dr. Mel Borins, a family physician, associate professor at the University of Toronto and author of Go Away: Just for the Health of It. “I’ve seen people’s health improve just with a weekend away, [and] I think more physicians are aware that downtime and leisure time are extremely important to health.”

Studies have found that vacations reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attacks, among other problems. Family relationships are also found to be positively affected by vacationing together.

“So basically, you’re going to increase your lifespan, increase your life satisfaction, decrease burnout. And [as] families, [your] relationships improve,” Dr. Borins said.

In his book, he offers tips on how to travel and stay well while on vacation. But is there a certain type of vacation that is most beneficial for doctors?

“Everybody has a different idea of what a vacation is for them — some like to keep active, some like to veg out,” Dr. Borins said. But “the research is saying that people feel more regenerated and more like the vacation lasts if they’ve been out in nature.”

Practise mindfulness to make the most of your downtime

Research shows that physicians’ health and well-being directly affect the quality of care they provide.

But “even resilient doctors burn out,” said Dr. Chakravarti. “Imagine 30 years of seeing the panorama of human suffering in patients. We’re not taught how to handle this.”

Dr. Chakravarti, whose own experience led her to become a pain specialist, also became involved in physician health and wellness and trained as a mindful practice facilitator. When it comes to time off for doctors, she said, the most important thing is their mindset.

“Mindfulness is not about ignoring, blocking [work] out — it’s acknowledging, accepting and then making a choice that’s appropriate,” she said.

If, for example, there is a patient you are concerned about while away, you might choose to check in on your personal time. That is OK — as long as you know it is a choice you are making. And while it is generally recommended to put the phone or pager down as much as possible, Dr. Borins agreed that is not always realistic.

“If the only way you can manage to be away is to stay connected in some way or other, it’s better than not going at all,” he said.

Find what fills you up

Self-awareness is also important when choosing what type of vacation to take.

“A two-week holiday trying to hit all the major European sights may not be a relaxing holiday, but it may be what fills you up,” Dr. Chakravarti said. “So again, it’s being aware of what it is that rejuvenates.”

Whatever you choose, it is important that you come away feeling recharged and rested. If your body has not had any downtime lately, that might mean skipping the ultra-marathon.

“Our body gets into that fight-flight-freeze mode automatically, and it doesn’t matter how much you enjoy climbing or running 26 miles — it’s still a stress on your body,” Dr. Chakravarti said. “If the holiday is not something that recovers...I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying [it’s about] the awareness of the choices that we're making and tuning into our bodies.”

Below are more tips for ensuring your next holiday is as restorative as possible.

Plan ahead for best results

A Harvard Business Review analysis found that vacations are more beneficial the less stressful they are. Making solid plans can reduce stress once you are away, so try to plan your vacation more than a month in advance and iron out details like transportation. If possible, meet up with someone knowledgeable about the location when you get there.

Consider a “staycation”

If family or other obligations prevent you from physically going away, author and former surgeon Dr. Cory Fawcett, a U.S.-based physician, recommends planning a “staycation” — that is, a vacation at home. To reap the benefits of your time off, however, it is important to set some boundaries, such as not succumbing to household chores — and not doing any more work than you would if you were lying on a beach far away.

Rather, plan your time off like you would a trip. Make a list of activities in your area — bowling or visiting a local lake or hiking trail — and in the evenings, try watching a series of movies together as a family.

Book your next vacation before your current one is over

One big challenge when it comes to taking vacation is coming back. If you have been looking forward to your time away for months, you are likely to feel down when that time comes to an end. For that reason, both Dr. Borins and Dr. Chakravarti recommend planning your next vacation while on your current one so you have something new to look forward to upon your return.

Ease back in

Dr. Borins identified several other ways to help ease your re-entry to the workplace after a holiday.

“I personally used to get a cold every time I’d come back from vacation,” he said. “I went back and right off the bat worked overtime, so it kind of wiped out the vacation experience.”

Now he recommends pre-scheduling an activity you love for your first week back, whether it is a walk in the park, massage, sports game or coffee with a friend. Be sure to book it ahead of time so you have something to look forward to.

Dr. Borins also suggested under-booking your time, so that even if you are trying to catch up, you do it over a few weeks, rather than all within the first week back.

Other tips include immediately getting your holiday photos developed (or organized online, if digital) and keeping any souvenirs or vacation clothes around during the first week back.

Use your downtime wisely

One more way to ensure your time away leaves you feeling re-energized is to use the fresh perspective you gain to reflect on your life and career.

In an article on his website, The Happy MD, family doctor and consultant Dr. Dike Drummond recommends taking an hour out of your vacation to make a list of things that are not working for you professionally. Then choose one that you want to improve, identify the first step in addressing it and set a deadline for yourself to do so. That way you will come back feeling not only rested but also empowered to improve your work life.