Holiday Health

Donald NorfolkHolidays are one of the finest protections against fatigue and stress – providing they’re chosen with care. Considering their importance, it’s amazing that so little scientific study has been made of their biological and psychological effects.

One of the earliest researchers in this field was Professor Pierre Delbarre, of the Cochin Port Royal Hospital in Paris. Delbarre was convinced that when planning holidays we should pay more attention to correcting what he termed the ‘biological disequilibria’ in our lives, and less concern for acquiring a tan or rushing off to faraway places. He believed that people would benefit by taking more short breaks rather than one long annual holiday. ‘Biological imperative’, he affirmed, suggest that we should take two or three periods of eight to ten days’ holiday a year to help prevent the build up of tension and fatigue.

On holiday we need to find ourselves rather than lose ourselves. The tour operators’ glossy ads. may seduce us into seeking sangria, sun and sex when what we really need is solitude and peace. A middle-aged executive conscious of his declining youth and virility would probably benefit more by going on a mountain biking holiday – which would help to boost his ego – than by taking a beach holiday and exposing his pallid paunch and flabby body to invidious comparison with the lithe, tanned torsos of young water skiers. In the same way a middle aged lady whose children have fled the nest, and who is feeling surplus to requirements, would most probably do better to go on a creative writing course, than travel round as a supernumerary on one of her husband’s Far Eastern business trips. This would aid her growth and help assert her individual worth.

Holidays taken in this way can help replace the missing elements in our lives and provide opportunities for self-discovery and growth. They can inject excitement into dull, routine lives; provide an opportunity for consumers to become creators; enable urbanites to rediscover their grass roots origins; the lonely to find company, and the repressed to let off steam.

Holidays taken in this way can be exhausting as well as restorative. This is recognised in the very derivation of the word ‘travel’ which comes from the French ‘travail’, meaning to ‘work of labour’. The nineteenth century travellers who carried out a Grand Tour of Europe suffered endless physical hardships, but came into intimate contact with the local people and places. Today’s holiday makers can follow the same itinerary by coach, visiting eighteen cities in fifteen days. Many come back suffering from cultural indigestion, a reeling head and upset stomach. They are not travellers in the old sense of the word, but tourists, a word derived from the Latin ‘tornus’, meaning ‘a person carried around in a circle’. Their journeying is more likely to widen the rump than broaden the mind. The first form of travel led to the Enlightenment, the second all too often leads to the great disillusionment.

The modern packaged holiday maker stays in an international hotel of standard international design and shops in supermarkets that could as easily be in Iowa as Istanbul. They travel with people who generally come from their own back yard, speak the same language, wear the same clothes, watch the same TV programmes and take the same excursion trips. They are encapsulated in a carefully prepared protective cocoon, which limits their chance of experiencing excitement, self-discovery and growth.

Holidays have a vital role to play in health promotion, but if they are to be truly re-creational, they need to be devised with as much care and individual attention as a doctor shows when prescribing treatment for an individual patient, a subject we’ll explore in greater depth in a few week’s time.

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