If you are one of those nose-to-the-grindstone people who think you are too busy to take a vacation, you’d be smart to rethink that. Your life may depend on it!

That’s the finding of an important new study from the University of Helsinki in Finland that looked at 1,222 middle-aged businessmen who had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD), such as smoking, high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, etc.

Here’s how the research unfolded…

Vacation time was part of a new analysis that was tacked on to a previous shorter study that compared men who got health advice (on such things as aerobic exercise and healthy diet) to help manage their CVD risk factors with men who didn’t get that advice. When the health coaching didn’t improve the men’s risk factors, medication was prescribed (such as blood pressure drugs and lipid-lowering medication). The coaching and medication initially reduced the rate of CVD compared with the control group, but at the end of the 15-year follow-up period, the men in the group that got health advice and/or medication were surprisingly more likely to have died.

When the researchers dug deeper into the data, that’s when they discovered how work, sleep and vacation played a role.

How much vacation made a difference? Among the men who got health coaching and/or medication, those who vacationed for three weeks or less every year had a 37% greater risk of dying over a 30-year period than those who vacationed more often.

Not surprisingly, the men who didn’t get as much downtime also spent more time at work and fewer hours sleeping. The stressful trifecta of fewer vacations, more work and less sleep is believed to have cancelled any benefits from the health advice and/or medication.

“Don’t think having an otherwise healthy lifestyle will compensate for working too hard and not taking holidays,” said Timo Strandberg, MD, PhD, professor of geriatrics at the University of Helsinki and the lead study author. “Vacations can be a good way to relieve stress.”

What about women? Even though this research did not include women, the Framingham Heart Study (which did!) reported similar results—women who vacationed twice every year were eight times less likely to have a heart attack or develop heart disease than those who vacationed only once every six years.

Bottom line: Lots of exercise and kale salads won’t necessarily help you live longer if you work too hard and skip vacations. You don’t have to save for a fancy vacation to an exotic destination. The location of your vacation isn’t important. But stress reduction is! One of the best ways to dial down the stress is to get away from your workplace for some stress-free downtime.

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