Travel and Your Health

Before we left for our year-long trip around the world, we took a hard look at what it would take for us to stay healthy while traveling to over 100 countries on all seven continents. Something we hadn’t really considered at that point but definitely learned along the way was just how much travel itself contributes to our good health.

In fact, travel is the best medicine. Did you know:

And beyond the benefits of travel itself are the physical and mental health benefits of trip planning. Science has proven that you derive greater pleasure from anticipating an upcoming trip than you do from material purchases, no matter how expensive they are. And planning a trip somewhere new sparks creativity and helps you develop problem-solving skills.

Watch our latest segment on The Daily Refresh (WTVC NewsChannel 9, ABC TV), then read on to learn how to reap the health rewards of travel.

“Trip planning is dreaming while you’re awake.” — Mike Ballard

We know that our brains stay healthier when they’re challenged, as they are when we use them for creative problem solving. When it comes to traveling to a new place, you’re already in problem-solving mode as you research, plan, and schedule your adventures. In the process, you’re dreaming of what the trip might be like, which is when the aforementioned benefits of anticipation begin. As Mike says, “Trip planning is dreaming while you’re awake.”

Traveling to a new place gives you the biggest health boost, particularly when that new place is a foreign country.

The findings of two recent studies led by Catherine Hartley of New York University resoundingly found this: the farther you wander, the happier you’ll be.

“Psychologists tell us that the good life isn’t all about pleasure and ease or hard work and accomplishment. It also includes something called psychological richness, which basically means experiencing and weathering new and challenging experiences,” wrote Jessica Stillman in Inc. magazine. “Then there’s a whole line of research showing that newness and discomfort fire up the learning centers in our brains. New places and new experiences are harder than old standbys. They’re less predictable. Sometimes they’re downright awful. But science suggests they’re worth the effort.”

This isn’t to say that you can’t keep taking your annual family vacation to the Florida timeshare! But perhaps this year you plan a day trip to the Everglades for an exhilarating air boat ride. Or book a family cooking class using seasonal ingredients you picked up at a local farmer’s market. Adding a new experience can breathe fresh benefits into a repeat destination.

In addition to trying new experiences and learning new things, one of the key elements of tapping into travel’s health benefits is engaging with locals. This is particularly important when you’re traveling to a foreign country, which is one reason Mike and I enjoy staying in Airbnbs and spending time with our hosts rather than checking into a chain hotel. We can learn what their life is like where we’re visiting, and they always have the best recommendations for local guides, restaurants, artists, and other businesses we can support.

“The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School who has authored a number of studies on the scientific links between creativity and international travel. “Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment.”

And if you’re worried about eating foreign food, don’t be. In fact, it could be one of your biggest travel health benefits! Travel exposes you to different environments, which create stronger antibodies and boost your immune system significantly.  According to Joel Weinstock, Chief of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Tufts Medical Center, “In the 20th century, we started changing the way we live. We live in very clean boxes. Water is immaculate. Food is nearly sterile. Exposure to bacteria and soil is less common. Certain diseases that were essentially unknown in the 18th century and earlier are becoming common now.” When you venture out from one place to the other, your body automatically adjusts to a huge number of infinitesimal bodies, making it significantly more grounded. Andy Lee Graham, who has travelled to 107 countries since 1998, said traveling is “his best probiotic.”

Whether you’re at home or abroad, use common sense and follow basic safety precautions. Beyond that — enjoy your trip and its multitude of health benefits! After all, travel really is the best medicine.