The health benefits of travel

There are many reasons why travel is a good idea. Improving your health and reducing your risk of dementia or chronic disease could be a number one reason to start saving for your next adventure. There are some risks in travelling, but also benefits. I’ve been thinking about the travel risk/benefit trade off these last few weeks as I’ve traveled through Chile and Mexico in my role as Health Scientist for The University of Queensland.

READING TIME: 5 MINUTES

There are a number of things that happen when I’m travelling that support my dementia risk reduction activities.

  1. Improve Fitness: Whenever I travel I always walk more than when I am at home, and I do this without noticing it. It seems to take very little effort to put in significantly more movement while I am away. Aerobic activities, like walking, are best when done regularly and at the same rate, and this is what happens when I travel. We have a schedule and we just keep moving. I always arrive home with a higher level of fitness than before I left.

  2. Social interaction: Decreasing isolation and ensuring that we have a sense of community is very important in reducing our risk of dementia. We meet many new people while we travel, some will go on to remain long term friends. I love all the interactions and conversations with new people that I meet. Travel tends to create an openness to welcome conversations and sharing that we don’t usually have time for when we are going about our usual life at home. While I am travelling and away from my regular community it is possible to feel disconnected from home, but with modern technology I can report back to family and friends about what I am are doing (and this gives me an increased sense of connectedness with those I’ve left behind).

  3. Relaxation: While it can be said that travelling is stressful, a well planned and appropriately financed trip should have less stress than most expeditions. Travel enables you to get away from the every day which often has significant stressful elements such as financial commitments, work challenges and community responsibilities. The period of time for travel enables a release from the usual lifestyle and time to step back from day to day stress. Sometimes it lets you reflect on life and the things that you value. Even when I am working, travel is almost like a holiday from the every day. Change is like that.

  4. Stimulate the brain: There is always something new to see and learn while travelling, even learning a new language can be one of the challenges. This is helpful in keeping our brain agile and cognitively stimulated. I’m not sure that the three Spanish words I came home with from this trip will satisfy the claim to ‘brain stimulation’ (I am not very good at learning languages) but I did learn a lot about the two countries I visited and the health care work that is happening there.

Cognitive activities which challenge the brain are important to keep the brain healthy. Video games have been developed to entertain and challenge the brain. Travel does the same thing, it is a significant workout for the brain. It is the experience of going to places that you haven’t been to before, solving problems, often operating in cultures and languages that are not familiar, which all work together to keep your brain agile.

Research has shown that if you combine interesting conversation, physical activity and a mental challenge then you are placing the brain and the body in the best circumstances to improve dementia risk reduction by facilitating brain health. Travel is often replicating this environment with conversations about the experiences you are enjoying, while trying to solve situational problems, as you walk around new environments.

Challenges while travelling.

While it is true that all these benefits of travel are good things. There are some challenges or risks associated with travel that should not be overlooked.

  1. Visiting a dangerous place or a health risk: If you are visiting a country that is dangerous (and it can be dangerous for a variety of reasons), or there are health risks where you need to be careful about drinking the water or which food to eat.), then your general well being and safety can be at risk. If you are not careful you could come home sicker than when you left. Always remember to get vaccinated before you leave if it is required, read the safety warnings about a place you are visiting, and always take spare snacks in your luggage.

  2. Obesity: I often eat more while I am away. I always like to try the food that is popular in the area that I am travelling, and I also like to experience the local restaurants. Without careful thought it is easy to over eat. I have a few strategies to help keep the eating in check (for example, when there is a three course meal I don’t finish the food on my plate for each course; I often take my own minimalist nutrition rich breakfast rather than eat the buffet; and I share desserts).

  3. Sleep: Sleep is very important to your cognitive and physical health. While travelling sleep is interrupted, and not just because of jet lag. The desire to do more things, and constant changes in living space can lead to disrupted sleep. This has a significant impact on sleep cycles and can take a toll on your health. The more tired I get, the more likely I am to make silly mistakes which endanger myself or ensure that I lose something.

  4. Stress: Travel can be stressful particularly if you have organised a trip that doesn’t align with your personal preferences (i.e. you like to sleep in and stay in one place; and you have organised a trip that requires getting up early and moving hotels every day). Plus there are all those security checks as you cross borders from one country to the next, if you get nervous then this won’t be very relaxing. Different people have a different travel thresholds - travelling in a way that suits you will reduce your stress.

What does this mean for you? Travel is an adventure. It should be a great experience. The best way to benefit from travel is to understand what you really enjoy and to travel in a way that aligns with your lifestyle (and not do what you think everyone else thinks is a good way to travel). If you like to stay in one place for 3 weeks, then you should do that. If you like to move from place to place or rent cheap accommodation so you can spend more on food - that is what you should do.

You will stress less if you travel in a way that suits you, but do travel. It is a fabulous adventure.


Photo Credit

Photo by Melinda Martin-Khan on Unsplash

This photo was taken on my recent trip to Coyhaique, Chile for The University of Queensland April 2019.