BY MARILYNN PRESTON

April showers do bring May flowers — I can hardly wait! — but I’m also aware that April is the month that many of my dear readers fall victim to VPJ — Vacation Planning Jitters.

How many days and how much money can you comfortably spend on something as frivolous as your well-being? Where will you go? Who will go with you? How many pairs of shoes will you take Can the dog come, too? Will your boss think less of you if you take time off? Will your job still be there when you return?

If you’re beginning to get the shakes, I understand.

But as your most personal trainer, I’m happy to remind you that anticipating, planning and taking a vacation is essential to living a healthier, happier life.

Pop quiz: Who said, “All work and no play makes for a rich, stimulating, satisfying life?” Nobody.

• TAKE ALL YOUR VACATION. This above all. To enjoy your vacation, you have to take it. It’s crazy but true: Americans take many fewer weeks of vacation time than people in most other civilized nations.

This April, make a pledge to accept all the vacation time you have coming. Vacations don’t have to involve expensive hotels or exotic locations. Camp in a state park. Volunteer to clean up a river.

Your well-being gets a boost from shifting your mindset: from work to play, from pressure to pleasure, from pleasing the boss to taking care of yourself and your loved ones.

• GO GUILT-FREE. To work toward health and balance, every one of us needs to relax, regroup and reenergize.

So when you do take your vacation — you’ve earned it! — leave your guilt behind. Don’t check work emails or phone the office unless you’re forced to. Fretting over work while you’re on vacation gets in the way of experiencing new places, new cultures and new points of view. (If you need me to write a note to your employer, just say.)

Vacations create space and time for you to reflect and rejuvenate, to express your imagination and explore your dreams. That’s why we take ’em!

• PLAN AN ACTIVE VACATION. I know vacations are a matter of personal choice, but if you’ve never dipped your toe into an active vacation, you’re missing out … big time! The best active vacations involve a physical challenge — not too hard, but not too easy. They test your mettle in a way cruising on the internet never will.

Adventure travel — one of my middle names — builds confidence, develops character and helps you overcome fear. And sometimes — I’m thinking of paddling a particular Class V rapid in Costa Rica — it makes you cry. That’s OK. That’s why active vacations are booming in popularity. Because they do provide those breakthrough moments; you come back from your vacation a changed, or at least refreshed, person.

You can choose from a zillion different adventures, from biking and hiking to sailing and snorkeling, from riding horses to rafting rivers. Whatever you choose, if it’s a lot more active than your normal routine, spend some pre-vacation time building strength and endurance.

And do your homework — browsing online, talking to friends, reading magazines and books. Work with a reliable outfitter, don’t overestimate your skills, stay safe and, most importantly, try not to lose your children.

• ALLOW FOR THE UNEXPECTED. Starting to plan for your vacation now is a good thing. Overplanning is not. If you tightly schedule every day, every hotel, every meal, you’re leaving too little room for spontaneous encounters, those magical moments that deliver unexpected joy and excitement. You can’t look for them, but you can find them — if you leave your hotel or home one morning with nowhere to go, nothing to do and allow the day to unfold one unplanned moment at a time. Bliss!

• HOME VS. AWAY. Times are tough for many, and there’s no shame in spending your vacation days close to home this year. Staycations can soothe the soul as much as long-distance travel, but all the same rules apply: Have your best time; seize every moment; don’t waste energy feeling guilty; plan fun physical activities; and be open to discovering something new every day.
And don’t forget to send me a postcard.

– Marilynn Preston is the author of “Energy Express,” America’s longest-running healthy lifestyle column. For more on personal well-being, visit www.MarilynnPreston.com.