Why travel is good for your brain

Going on an exciting adventure is a great way to stay active and see the world. But it can also keep your brain sharp. Here’s how.

Senior couple taking a picture outside

People travel for many reasons: to relax, explore new places, meet people, visit loved ones — the list is endless. But travel does much more than broaden your physical horizons. It can also be a boon for your brain health, especially if you’re heading into your golden years.

Since physical activity helps your overall health, getting out and about is always a good thing. But other aspects of travel, such as making new memories, engaging in social interactions, participating in new experiences, and just having fun, can also be beneficial for your brain.

“Planning a trip and doing a group tour, with an itinerary and historical destinations to learn about new cultures — this is going to be a great workout for your brain,” says David A. Merrill, M.D. He’s a geriatric psychiatrist and director of Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “It will activate the circuits of learning new things, remembering things you may have learned about in years past in school, and experiencing new smells and sights and sounds.”

Read on to learn how your next big trip can help keep your brain sharp.

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How travel works out your body (and your brain)

A key, brain-boosting element of travel is all that built-in exercise. If you’re flying, just walking through airport terminals can give your fitness tracker a workout. A sprawling resort can also help you ratchet up your steps as you go exploring.

Then there are your day-to-day activities, such as:

  • Strolling through a museum
  • Touring a historical site or ruins
  • Walking along the beach or nature trail

All these movements have a payoff, both for your body and your brain. According to a review published in Neurology Clinical Practice, exercise leads to improvements in global cognition, processing speed and attention, and executive function (those are skills that help you plan ahead, meet goals, and display self-control, among other things).

All that moving you’re doing helps with blood flow and keeps your muscles active, says Dr. Merrill. And it sends signals to the brain to maintain its sharpness. “The fact that travel is an active thing will signal to the brain to stay in shape,” he says.

How you can boost your brain health on vacation

Traveling isn’t just a way to exercise your body, it’s also a great workout for your brain. “Having scheduled activities will really maximize time as a brain workout,” Dr. Merrill says. That can include everything from sightseeing and museum-going to catching a play or concert to just engaging in a different culture.

And you don’t have to travel to Timbuktu to get these benefits; you can do them while car camping or day-tripping or on a bus tour. Simply being there will offer you opportunities to learn something new.

That could mean digging into a city’s history (open that guidebook or do searches online for more information). Maybe the people in the place you’re visiting speak a different language or have a different dialect. And while you’re away, try engaging in a new skill or two, like dancing or taking a cooking class. (If you’re camping, try building a fire or setting up your tent without peeking at the directions.) Lifelong learning opportunities help to fight cognitive decline by increasing mental stimulation and social interaction, notes a paper published in the Delaware Journal of Public Health.

Traveling to a new place can benefit your memory. One study showed that being in a new place could increase your empathy, energy, focus, and attention, which helps build strong memories. People often have stronger memories of a trip than they have of their own day-to-day.

Meeting new people while traveling has a similar effect on the brain. (Maybe you meet some fellow campers during that cooking class.) Being social and maintaining friendships can help prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia. So, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with the people hanging out at your neighbor’s campsite, sitting nearby on a tour bus, or waiting to be seated at a busy restaurant.

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Build in rest time for the brain

Of course, you don’t have to be active the entire time you’re traveling. Similar to when doing regular physical activity, schedule time for working out your brain and time for rest and recovery.

“Try to be selective, and maybe focus on one activity per half day,” Dr. Merrill says. “And if you’d like to include some downtime, schedule that in too.”

Traveling allows you to explore new places, meet new people, and discover new cultures. And the big bonus: It helps boost your brain health. So go on vacation; it could be the healthiest move you make all year!

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Additional sources:
Exercise and brain health: Neurology Clinical Practice
Study on travel and attention: International Journal of Cross Cultural Management
Learning and cognitive decline: Delaware Journal of Public Health