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To Improve Mental Health, Pick Up a New Skill While Traveling

Training in a new skill, be it diving into the ocean’s depths or learning a language, can keep your brain healthy

by Stephanie Vermillion

September 14, 2023

Castle Hot Springs / Photo: Courtesy of Castle Hot Springs

I was floating above kaleidoscopic coral, enveloped by the cerulean, fish-packed sea, when a realization hit me: This is why people scuba dive. I’d spent the months prior to this adventure tackling the hard part—learning how to scuba dive. On paper, the goal had sounded simple. I’d study, train, then complete my Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) open-water certification in Bonaire, a Dutch Caribbean island known for bustling sea life and a top-notch diving scene. I’d forgotten one thing, though: Learning a new skill can be tough, especially if you’re out of practice.

I was a sponge during my school and early career years. I studied, read and even threw myself into extracurriculars such as running. This zest continued into my late 20s and early 30s, with a career pivot that required adopting a new set of skills, including writing and photography.

But when the pandemic pressed pause on life, I slipped into a state of comfort. I forgot what it felt like to challenge myself and grow. Then an invitation to learn scuba diving hit my inbox—it was time to shed my pandemic shell. Going from ground zero to trained scuba diver bobbing above Bonaire’s vibrant coral left me feeling more confident than I had for years.

According to psychologists, I’m not alone in this. The older we get, the harder it is to gain new knowledge. Teachers aren’t at our disposal. Our comfort zones and long-honed areas of genius feel extra cozy. And, as I can attest from my early scuba-diving trepidation, we fear making mistakes and looking stupid. But pushing ourselves to learn is essential for brain health.

Over time, and without mental training, our brains lose their sharpness—and it can happen sooner than we think. One study in The British Medical Journal suggests that humans can experience cognitive decline as early as age 45. Staying physically active may help you counter some of those declines, but exercising your mind is an equally essential part of the equation. That’s where learning comes into play.

Training in a new skill, be it diving into the ocean’s depths or learning a language, can keep your brain healthy, help prevent dementia and boost confidence. One of the easiest ways to partake? Pick up a new skill while you’re on the road with one of the travel industry’s many learning-meets-fun experiences, known as “edutainment.”

Bonaire coral reef / Photo: Courtesy of Buddy Dive Resort

Try Scuba Diving

When the ocean calls, answer at Bonaire’s Buddy Dive resort, an award-winning PADI-certified property that specializes in scuba training. The getaway, which gives back to the ocean via regular coral planting, runs four- and five-day PADI open-water-certification sessions. You’ll learn the nuts and bolts of the sport near the resort’s house reefs before completing your final test in the open water with a descent of up to 60 feet.

Get Garden-Savvy

Cultivate your gardening skills at Castle Hot Springs, a luxury resort and spa in a palm-dotted canyon one hour north of Phoenix. During the property’s Homegrown Gardening program, Castle Hot Springs’ trained farmers teach guests the fundamentals of home gardening, from how to find native seeds to how to maintain and harvest crops through the seasons. Don’t miss the resort’s naturally heated mineral waters.

Amanyara, Turks and Caicos / Photo: Courtesy of Amanyara

Become an Athlete

Visit Turks and Caicos for a relaxing vacation, and leave the tropical oasis as a professionally trained athlete. This lofty experience is achievable via Amanyara, a tranquil escape set on an 18,000-acre Providenciales nature reserve. Its Amanyara Legends program runs sports clinics with professional athletes, from NFL and NBA icons to tennis champions. Guests train with the pros using Amanyara’s world-class facilities, then return home with an uptick in athleticism—not to mention bragworthy stories.

The Resort at Paws Up, Greenough, Montana / Photo: Courtesy of Stuart Thurlkill

Gain Wilderness Skills

Montana’s tranquil and mountain-flanked Resort at Paws Up makes the idea of life in the woods tempting, and a wilderness-skills class with the property’s backcountry experts could give that outdoorsy dream a leg up. Paws Up’s wilderness workshops teach guests to make fires, tie knots, build shelters, track wildlife and identify edible plants. Join a group tour or take your outdoor training even deeper with a private skills-building lesson, available for an additional fee.

Learn to Dance

Pack your dancing shoes for a weekend of action-packed lessons at Virginia’s Mountain Lake Lodge, the filming location of the blockbuster hit Dirty Dancing. On select weekends, the resort hosts themed events with training from professional dancers, followed by dance parties to show off your hard-earned moves. The resort, a collection of cabins, cottages and a lodge in the undulating Blue Ridge mountains, runs these weekends from February through October.