By Kate Meyers
Same place, different mind-set—that’s the challenge of a staycation. How do you exist within the same four walls, with the same distractions—messy basement, couch and remote, computer, junk food, phone—yet create a relaxing, healthy, away-from-it-all experience? According to a 2009 AP-Gfk poll, one-third of Americans have already canceled a trip due to financial concerns, and more than half have no plans to hit the road this year. For the recession-squeezed, or the downright too-exhausted-to-travel, we tapped the experts for advice on how a typical family of four can have an invigorating (and inexpensive) vacation without leaving home.
Plan to check out—at least mentally
The best way to feel like you’re getting away in your own home? Create a vacation plan—and stick with it. “Think about what your intention is for the time off, write it down, then put it up on the fridge,” says Meredith Haberfeld, a New York–based life and career coach. If your goal is to feel connected to your family, set aside specific time for family-only activities, dinners, and outings. Research shows that family rituals (like vacations) boost parents’ and kids’ mental and physical health. But just because you’re not getting away doesn’t mean you can’t focus on together time—it just takes a bit more effort.
If you’re winging it, you’re setting your staycation up for failure. “You need to have some clear goals and set up a schedule,” says Ken Robbins, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Most people do a poor job because they don’t plan and then they answer the phone, they do an errand, people stop over, and before they know it, the week is over and they’ve done what they usually do.”
Rediscover your hometown
For a true mental getaway, explore your surroundings with a visitor’s eye—it will keep you away from the pull of the daily grind. One great resource is discoveramerica.com. Simply plug in your location and you’ll find a list of nearby offerings for museums, galleries, libraries, parks, and unique businesses (think candymakers, tea producers, breweries, bakeries). City magazines or weekend newspaper sections are another great resource for in-town events such as outdoor concerts, movies in the park, and theater performances. Or head to the closest college town to take advantage of some free campus offerings, like dance performances, lectures, and more.
Create your own swanky destination
Can’t afford to get to Canyon Ranch? You can create nearly the same healthy experience at home. “If you’ve always wanted to take a yoga, water aerobics, or spinning class, schedule a day where everyone does a few things at the local rec center,” says Melissa Thornton, a marriage and family therapist in Trumbull, Conn. Many gyms and yoga studios offer a free introductory trial or a discount for your first class, or log on to gymticket.com to score free passes to gyms in your area.
Try a little in-house pampering and healthy dining for the ultimate spa experience. Light candles, put body oils and rose petals in a bath, and play some soothing music. Try at-home facials and pedicures for a relaxing mother-daughter group activity. And when your tummies start to rumble, gather your family and head to the kitchen. You can try hundreds of Canyon Ranch’s healthy recipes—like Chicken Panzella Salad or Artichoke and Tomato Flatbread—just by signing up (for free!) at the resort’s website.
A healthy staycation should include one active element every day, but that doesn’t mean you should schlep your family to the gym. “Combine getting outside and exercising with something else to create an adventure,” says Mike Munro, a fitness consultant in New York City. He suggests taking a train ride to a new hiking trail, or combining a hike with a midday picnic. You can also turn something as simple as a bike ride into a scavenger hunt. “Just ride through the city and hunt for a picture in front of a certain building, a keychain from a different part of town, and a drawing of a local monument,” he adds.
For families with teenage children, try setting a team goal, like a 10K race, bike race, or group walk. Put together a three-month training schedule, place it on the fridge, and let each family member check off his or her daily workout. (A general rule of thumb: Every two weeks increase your training by at least 10% but no more than 25%.) “Having this calendar helps you focus, and seeing all those check marks becomes a visual indicator of your progress,” says Munro.
Choose your event ahead of time, then use your staycation to focus on training.
For extra motivation, try training for a charity event. Several studies have demonstrated the link between volunteering and greater mental and physical health. In fact, a recent large-scale Vanderbilt University study found that people of all ages who volunteered experienced increased physical health and decreased levels of depression. Check out volunteermatch.org for opportunities near your home.
Get away from your gadgets
A staycation can quickly go south if you let yourself get caught up with daily tasks like checking your email and returning phone calls. If you really want to get away, you should act like you’re out of town. “For at least a few days put the auto responder on your email and leave a message on your phone saying that you’re on vacation,” says Robbins.
Make a family pact to turn off BlackBerrys, iPods, and computers. “This is a great one for mental health because it disconnects you from the responsibilities, stressors, and routine of everyday life,” says Thornton. If a complete turnoff is impossible, then set very specific limits—like once a day for 15 minutes. Technological turnoff is not only good for families, but it may also calm the gadget-addicted. Edward Hallowell, MD, author of CrazyBusy: Overbooked, Overstretched, and About to Snap, says that personalities who feel the need to answer every email can work themselves into a state of toxic stress. So use your staycation to unwind and disconnect.
Make food fun
Use your time off to experiment in the kitchen as a family. Chris Heuston, a Colorado-based nutritionist and mother of three, likes to walk or ride her brood to the farmers’ market and let everyone pick some toppings for a personal pizza. If you want to score some great deals—or even some free produce—head to the market toward the end of the day, just as the merchants start to pack up their trucks. Many merchants don’t want to lug unsold produce back home, so they’ll sell it to you for a super-low price (or even for free).
Try whipping up your own pizza dough, dividing it into individual pies, and letting your kids make their own. Heuston’s favorite toppings include olives, red peppers, and basil, or goat cheese, potatoes, and asparagus. And when it comes to the kitchen, healthy doesn’t have to mean boring. Heuston suggests Iron Chef lunches. Simply lay out multiple ingredients and let everyone create his or her own meal. Heuston is also a fan of grilling. It’s easy and there’s less clean up. “Try things that you wouldn’t necessarily grill, like romaine for a Caesar salad or tomatoes for a salsa,” she says. “My kids love to make homemade ice cream in the summer and we’ll grill peaches to mix in.”
Keep the mood light and relaxed
Things tacky, wacky, or out of the ordinary can be memorable. If you’re lucky enough to have a local drive-in movie theater, go in your pajamas. Visit an oddball local attraction—like the world’s largest popcorn ball in Sac City, Iowa—or have a family mini-golf tournament. Sure, you may wish you were headed to the beach or the Grand Canyon, but set a positive example for your kids by keeping the mood light. The effects could be long-lasting—research shows that kids who feel good about themselves are less likely to be materialistic.