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reading a book by a shore

My Lovely Wife and I recently spent a few days vacationing on the North Shore of Lake Superior. We biked along the shoreline, explored the Duluth Art Institute, watched surfers battling the waves on Park Point, and discovered an eclectic book store in a part of town we’d never visited. You might say it was just the sort of thing a routine-obsessed geezer like me needed to reset his daily rhythms and embrace the unexpected.

You might say that, but I never would. Vacations and I have a complicated relationship. I love the idea of getting away from it all as long as the actual experience doesn’t deviate too much from what I’m leaving behind.

At our hotel in Duluth, for example, I was able to brew a cup of tea in the morning and spend some time reading — just as I do each morning at home. The fact that the world’s largest freshwater lake sent its waves crashing onto the shore 50 feet away from our patio was an interesting, albeit unnecessary, addition to the ritual. Similarly, biking to a coffee shop in the early afternoon — a regular occurrence back in our neighborhood — offered some topographical challenges, but once we settled in with our preferred beverages and unpacked our iPads, we might as well have been sipping lattes in Minneapolis.

This may seem boring — or at least unambitious — but it’s really all about doing on vacation what I enjoy doing at home. There are always diversions, of course; I can’t recall the last time we wandered along the shoreline of one of our city’s many lakes. Still, when I returned to the office and a colleague asked me about my time away, I was unable to muster much more than a feeble “Uh . . .  OK, I guess” in response.

I was thinking about my vacation ambivalence the other day after discovering a paper University of Helsinki professor Timo Strandberg presented in Munich last month at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress. Strandberg and his team analyzed 40 years of mortality records and concluded that getting away from it all on a regular basis may extend your longevity even more effectively than adopting a healthier lifestyle.

The study began in 1974 by dividing 1,222 middle-aged Finnish businessmen into two groups: an “intervention group” that was instructed to pursue specific healthy-living habits and a “control group” that made no changes to its daily routine. When researchers checked back in with each group in 1989, they found the healthy regimen the intervention folks practiced had reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by 46 percent. That good news, however, was countered by a more surprising result: The control group reported fewer deaths.

This prompted Strandberg and his team to dig deeper into the data, focusing on the work, sleep, and vacation habits of each group. They discovered that higher death rates among the “healthier” intervention group continued until 2004, and they attributed the disparity to the lack of stress-relieving vacation time. Men in that study sample who vacationed for fewer than three weeks in a year were 37 percent more likely to die than those who got away from the workplace more often.

Curiously, vacation frequency had no influence on the mortality risk for control-group members — a fact Strandberg at least partially attributes to the stress of adopting a healthier lifestyle. “The harm caused by the intensive lifestyle regime was concentrated in a subgroup of men with shorter yearly vacation time,” he explains in a statement released by the ESC. “In our study, men with shorter vacations worked more and slept less than those who took longer vacations. This stressful lifestyle may have overruled any benefit of the intervention. We think the intervention itself may also have had an adverse psychological effect on these men by adding stress to their lives.”

The death rate of the intervention group dropped during the last decade of the study to levels similar to the control group, Strandberg notes — a fact he suggests may be due to an increased focus on stress management on the part of healthcare providers.

I’m not going to argue with Strandberg’s data; it’s no secret that stress is a major culprit in all sorts of afflictions as we age. But, as far as this geezer is concerned, vacation time doesn’t necessarily ratchet up my relaxation levels, probably because my workweek routine is generally pretty relaxing — tranquil mornings, regular afternoon bicycle trips to the coffee shop, weekly golfing excursions, and Friday afternoons entertaining our grandson. And, while I routinely spend a few weekend hours catching up on some writing or editing, it’s a pleasant break from weeding the garden or mending a backyard fence.

That may help explain my ambivalence about vacationing, though I suspect there’s some slice of age-related neurosis beneath it all. The older I get, the less I enjoy any deviation from my routine. But as long as that routine is relatively stress-free and satisfying, I can’t see any reason to change my ways — or my vacation plans.

Thoughts to share?

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