This Is the Key to Keeping Your Brain Young
More than a bucket list item to check off, learning a new outdoors skill is actually great for your neuroplasticity.
It’s been said that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I’ve found that learning a new skill in the outdoors has been one of the most profound things I can do as I age, especially when it comes to travel. Just like learning a new language, expanding the brain/body connection can have life-changing benefits. Is it nerve-wracking to think about the potential of injury? Of course. But the benefits outweigh the risks in so many ways.
Studies have shown that lifelong learning results in increased neuron generation and positively affects memory, attention, thinking, and reasoning skills. According to Harvard Health, your brain has the ability to learn and grow as you age—a process called brain plasticity—but for it to do so, you have to train it on a regular basis. And the experts state it’s not just brain games that work this way; physical activities that require problem solving and thinking have the capacity to amp up plasticity, too, if done regularly,
“Eventually, your cognitive skills will wane and thinking and memory will be more challenging, so you need to build up your reserve,” says Dr. John N. Morris, director of social and health policy research at the Harvard Institute for Aging Research. “Embracing a new activity that also forces you to think and learn and requires ongoing practice can be one of the best ways to keep the brain healthy.”
It’s too easy to fall into our routines as they become more calcified by the hands of time. But the more you break things up, the more potential there is for growth. Even better if those experiences can be had in some of the West’s magnificent wildlands.
In learning to surf over the past couple months, starting with a lesson at female-run Surf Divas, I’ve found myself acquiring a new sense of proprioception, and a deeper connection with the water. Getting up on my longboard on the South La Jolla State Marine Reserve and seeing a massive school of trevally beneath me was even more exciting than catching the wave itself. Would this venture have been a lot easier if I’d learned as a teenager? Sure. Am I sore in places I didn’t know existed? Absolutely. But it’s actually fun to be terrible at something, building up skills brick by brick. In the real world, failure is embarrassing, but on the water, it’s allowing me space to laugh at my mistakes. It’s tempting to get lost in the comparison game, especially as I dive deep into SurfTok. But shredding at Nazaré truly isn’t even the goal. I’m taking a page from mature waterwoman Surfer Suzie; it’s about being outside, one with the water, and catching the stoke.
I’m also finding myself connecting with new communities of people interested in preserving the ocean. As Dan Buettner states in his popular book-turned-Netflix-series The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, community, lifestyle, and spirituality are inextricably tied to living a longer, healthier life.
So recenty I’ve just been saying yes. After interviewing champion spearfisherwoman Mitsuki Hara, I decided to sign up for a day of freediving and spearfishing in Cabo Pulmo with SpearMex. Though the waters were insanely choppy and I spent a lot of the day fighting seasickness, there was nothing more rewarding then spearing my dinner and bringing it back to the Four Seasons Costa Palmas, where I turned it into the most gorgeous ceviche to be shared with my travel companions.
I opted to try canyoneering and rappelling outside Moab, even though I was absolutely terrified. Would I do it again? That’s a big fat “nope.” It didn’t hook me the same way that surfing and spearfishing did. I’m a water baby, through and through. But what’s important is that I tried. And I encourage you to give it a go too. Your future self will thank you.