I noticed a flaw in my outdoor skills a few years ago that needed to be addressed: I had never camped alone. I knew I’d have to do it for a storey at some point, and I needed to get comfortable with it or I’d lose and/or blow the assignment.
I tented alone for the first time in Maine. I remember not just the book I was reading (Robinson Crusoe), but also where I was in it, the roaring wind whipping at my tent, and even the hue of the foliage when I awoke four years ago (vibrant golden yellow). I felt alive, lively, and eager to take on the world as I climbed out.
I assumed I was just picking up new talent. But there was a lot more than that going on. According to Brain World magazine, “research into brain health and lifespan suggests that regular experience of novelty is crucial to a long, happy life.”
Fads come and go, especially in fitness—we kicked like crazy for Tae Bo, hit PRs like crazy for CrossFit, and now we bike like crazy for Peloton. Before we move on again next month, something else will absorb us. Many people roll their eyes when they hear that, but they shouldn’t. We switch up our work habits, move our furnishings, and take vacations in order to ignite something new and different in ourselves. Why can’t everyone’s workout programme be the same?
It can and should be, and not simply because new workout regimens provide a means for us to persuade ourselves to become more active. In reality, there is intriguing brain research that demonstrates that trying new things is not only enjoyable and energetic but also improves our lives in a variety of ways.
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When we try something new and enjoy it, dopamine is released in our brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps us feel good. And the advantages of trying something new go beyond simply feeling good. Our brains improve as a result of learning.
“Every time you learn a new fact or ability, your brain changes,” explains Lara Boyd, head of the University of British Columbia’s Brain Behaviour Lab, in her TEDx lecture “After This Your Brain Will Not Be The Same.”
The more difficult a talent is to learn, the healthier for your brain it is. “My study has demonstrated that increasing the difficulty of practising, or increasing the effort if you will,” Boyd added, “really leads to both more learning and greater anatomical change in the brain.”
Many of the new talents I’ve learned (or attempted to master) in the last ten years as I’ve become more physically active have to do with addressing fear—rock climbing, ice climbing, ziplining, and so on. Mountain/road riding, kayaking/canoeing, and camping alone are among the activities that require fear’s first cousin—getting comfortable being uncomfortable.
And if you think camping alone isn’t something a person needs to work on, I challenge you to go deep into the woods, pitch a tent, and tell me how you react when branches crack at midnight, coyotes howl, and it sounds like there are 100 of them, and they’re getting closer, and IS THAT A MONSTER BREATHING ON THE SIDE OF MY TENT?!
The heebie-jeebies are real, at least in my case. Fears of heights, the unknown, and seeming like a fool in front of a guide and peers are all fears I encounter as a parent, husband, writer, and solopreneur.
“Continuously introducing fresh and unique techniques for physical activity and life skills can allow for people to have more ‘tools in their toolbox to deal with general life stressors,” says Christine Mac Donald, PhD, research director for The Sports Institute at UW Medicine and professor of neurological surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine: “It’s natural that learning new routines and skills makes exercising more fascinating.
Incorporating them into your workout programme can aid in the long-term sustainability of the physical activity. When routines get too repetitious, it’s quite simple to lose motivation over time. A diversified physical activity programme keeps things exciting by default, and it also gives you the chance to try something new.”
Learning new athletic skills has both spiritual and physical rewards. “Play is an activity loved for its own sake,” explains Diane Ackerman. It’s the brain’s preferred method of learning and navigating.”
Even if that is correct, there is a biological benefit to it. “Increasing the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain increases the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain, which can improve brain function,” Mac Donald explains. “The more active you are, the better your body will be overall, but 11 to 20 minutes is long enough to keep your heart rate up and running for long enough to have a favourable impact on brain function.” That’s why making time for activity during the day is beneficial to everyone.”
Trying new things forces us to be present at the moment. Almost nothing is enjoyable the first time. That’s why my vacation to Maine remains so clear in my mind.
In his book The Comfort Crisis, Michael Easter argues, “We live in a state of continual brain churn and useless chatter.” Reclaim Your Wild, Healthy, and Happy Self by Embracing Discomfort. “Newness forces us to be present and focused. This is due to our inability to predict what will happen next and how we will react, breaking the trance that leads to life rapid forward. “Newness has the ability to slow down our perception of time.”
That was true for me when I went solo camping in Maine; the trip appeared to go on forever. In comparison, subsequent solo camping trips to Texas, New Mexico, Utah, and Maine sped by. Easter suggests an intriguing concept: if we fill our lives with new experiences, we will feel as if we are living longer, or at the very least richer lives. He writes, “This explains why time seemed to move slower when we were kids.” “Everything was fresh back then, and we were always learning new things.”