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An unplugged, nature-centric vacation just may make you work better!

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Mon, 09/16/2013 - 2:27pm
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An unplugged, nature-centric vacation just may make you work better!

You’ve heard the saying, the best things in life are free? Turns out it may just be true. Nature; fresh air and the life giving oxygen it provides; and disengaging from our hectic, scheduled lives are all available to us at no charge, but too often we ignore the benefits they can provide. On vacation this past week, I found myself sitting on an expansive hotel balcony in a porch rocker, staring out across a vista that was simply breathtaking. I heard only the sounds of my own lungs breathing clean, fresh air, and the soft rise and fall of wind in leaves, peppered by bird song and the soft chirp of late summer crickets. At that moment in time, I was the lucky owner of something that no amount of money can buy. Peace, total and complete relaxation, and the slow, steady heartbeat and blood pressure that a week in nature provides.

Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells. Each one needs a steady supply of oxygen, found free of charge in the air we breathe, to survive. Its pretty simple, you go without oxygen for too many minutes, you die. Our bodies take in air and our red blood cells pick it up and carry it to the rest of the body to be used in the energy production known as metabolism. So simple, so much a part of our daily lives, and yet we take it for granted. If you consider that every time you exhale, you breathe out toxins, then think about the amount of time we spend indoors, one must wonder how good the constant recirculation of that indoor air really is for fueling our body, and what negative effects it has on our overall well-being.

We all know that taking time to regenerate is important. Yet in a recent survey from workforce consulting firm Right Management, 70 percent of employees said they weren't using all their earned vacation days. If we consider the positive effect that vacation has on our ability to be productive, it’s a rather shocking (not to mention counter productive) statistic. Why is it that so many of us don't take vacations or spend restorative time in nature? Many health care researchers and practitioners say that vacations and nature can have regenerative powers, improving mood and easing anxiety, stress, and depression.

I will admit that unplugging is hard for me. Deciding to take a few days with no electronics (ok, I’ll admit I brought them, and looked, but only responded to dire emergencies) was a very difficult decision, but now that I’m back on my home court, I fully realize the positive effect it has had. After returning from a glorious four nights in the Smoky Mountains, I realized that I didn't really lose out on the things that seemed so important and all-consuming.  In fact, every crisis I could have imagined, and they were all minor, was easily addressed with a Wi-Fi signal and a great team. In addition, both my work and myself will benefit from the break. I am so energized, de-stressed, and feel so great, I feel I could take on anything.

So whether you prefer vacationing in a distant location or simply taking some time from your home base to explore the natural wonders around you, you need to make a promise to yourself to do it, and know that you will be a better person for it. Go explore something new, take walks in nature with your family, take up a new activity, but be sure that some time is spent outdoors, that some is restive, and that part of the time is active. In the Women’s Health survey, "Health Benefits of Nature," some people who felt too stressed were more likely to spend a free day curled up on the couch - 54 percent plunk themselves in front of the TV, 44 percent eat, and 31 percent have a glass of wine; only 26 percent head out for a walk in the park.

Here are some benefits of scheduling that vacation. Rest time…

Is deeply clarifying.A few nights of sleep listening to wind, waves (and in my case - the gentle snoring of my dog), combined with a schedule that demands you do absolutely nothing, and therefore anything you want, for as long a period as you like, is incredibly calming and resets the mind and body. By the last day, I needed no daily caffeine to feel energized all day, and I could definitely think more clearly.

Solves problems.It’s incredible how not obsessing on the latest challenge or task in your personal or work life can make a clear answer emerge. Maybe it was there all along, deeply buried beneath the fretting, deadlines, and pressure, or maybe it was a fresh new way of looking at the situation, but not being obsessively absorbed will help you see what was really important, and what wasn't.

Improves health and overall mood.Scientists have long known that sunlight can ease depression, especially seasonal affective disorder (SAD). A 2007 study from the University of Essex in the UK found that a walk in the country reduces depression in 71% of participants. The researchers found that as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, improves mood, self-esteem, and motivation. If five minutes can help, imagine what a couple days can do!

Devalues the device connection.Have you seen the photo of the people on a tour of the Great Wall of China, where nearly all of them are looking down at a mobile device? Like you, I laughed…and refused to see myself. As much as I love the connections forged through email, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., I found that when I got home, I wanted to finish that painting I started last year, work on organizing my closet, and plant a fall garden. Spending the evening looking at a screen seemed to be cheating myself somehow from the lessons I learned while away. And television? Forget it. While I’m still a huge NCAA football fan (Roll Tide!) and have a couple programs I follow, the need to turn on the box and sit through obscene numbers of commercials while trying to eke out meaningful programming is over.

Boosts creativity.  As a marketer, creativity is my lifeblood. By exposing myself to new people, places, situations, and conversations, I filled half a notebook with ideas on how to infuse those situations into day-to-day life. Those moments on the porch with nothing to look at but the expansive vista of Mother Nature opened my mind to a tidal wave of creative ideas that came to me faster than I could write. I also peppered the notebook with motivational thoughts so that I could use it to return to that calm space long after I had returned home.

Helps reduce burnout.People who take regular time to relax are less likely to experience burnout, which can make them more creative and productive than their overworked, under-rested counterparts.

Does not stop when vacation is over.While on your breaks at work, step outside and take some slow, deep breaths. It’s amazing how it can decrease that tired feeling and give you more energy and focus. Staying indoors for long periods of time forces you to breathe stuffy, recirculated air. Go out. Get fresh air. Breathe deeply. At home, open your windows regularly and air out your house as often as you can. If you can, sleep with your bedroom window open. Get some exercise on a daily basis. When you can, try to exercise outside. Exercise gets your circulation going and floods your body with oxygen. Outdoor exercise does that even better. If you want to see a number of studies that prove it, emailme and I'll send you an amazing new reference guide on the benefits of outdoor exercise!

Is naturally healing and soothing to the human soul. By taking time for yourself, getting outdoors, clearing your mind, and breathing deeply, we can learn to see with greater clarity, increase problem solving ability, and reduce built up stress. At the end of a vacation, we feel refreshed, fortified, and energized. One studyfound that three days after vacation, subjects' physical complaints, their quality of sleep, and their overall mood had improved as compared to before vacation. These gains were still present five weeks later, especially in those who had more personal time and overall satisfaction during their vacations.

The bottom line is that taking a good amount of time away from the stresses of daily life can give us the break we need so that we can return to our lives refreshed and better equipped to handle whatever comes. Vacation time, especially when spent unplugged, in nature, doing something unscheduled can leave you healthier, happier, and better prepared to deal with life overall.

Anne-Marie Spencer serves the recreation industry as the Corporate VP Marketing for PlayCore in Chattanooga TN and a member of the company's Center for Professional Development.  She has presented over 80...

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