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Can Travel Make You Healthier?

If your vacation expectations are manageable, you can return home a better version of yourself

By Joanne Cleaver

The last time Camille Hoheb took a wellness-centered vacation, she didn't set any goals for strenuous hiking, didn't aim to reduce her blood pressure by a few points and didn't aim to reform any dastardly daily habits. She brought a sketchbook, not an itinerary, and a general aspiration to find locally popular eateries, instead of chomping through a list of must-visit restaurants.

An older man on a vacation playing with his grandsons in the ocean. Next Avenue, Mental health benefits of traveling
Exercise is often an important part of traveling, and it's often included in dementia intervention plans. Activities like going to the beach can offer mental health benefits, sensory stimulation and exercise for dementia patients.  |  Credit: Getty

The two days she spent in a scenic coastal Massachusetts town with her dog, her camera and her art kit was more relaxing than a week of forced fun, says Hoheb, 58. And she'd know: her day job is consulting with tourism bureaus about how they can better position themselves to wellness-seeking travelers.

My own capacity for planning is as elastic as it has ever been, considering that like every traveler, I have to be more flexible than I've ever been.

At this point in 2022, leisure travel has bounced back to its pre-pandemic levels and predictions are it will carry on — as much as it can, given that airlines are trimming back the number of flights they operate, and that hotels, restaurants and destinations are barely able to stay open due to a chronic labor shortage. Having delayed major trips for two years, many Americans are determined to save for blowout trips, according to experts, despite vacation disruption at popular national parks and European destinations due to fires, drought and flooding.

Shifting Travel Expectations

Is it possible to craft a restorative getaway in an already notoriously stressful year?

Yes, say experts, especially if you use planning itself as an exercise in mindfulness and then shift expectations, as Hoheb did, from activity to personal restoration. And new research even indicates that appropriate travel can be meaningful for people struggling with dementia.

Dr. Jun Wen, a lecturer of Tourism and Service Marketing at the Edith Cowan University in Australia, argues that the proven physical, psychological and social benefits of travel should position travel as a form of medical therapy for vulnerable groups, including people with dementia.

"All tourism experiences offer elements of anticipation and planning, both of which stimulate brain function. Exercise is often an important component of tourism experiences, and it is frequently included in dementia intervention plans. Tourism experiences such as a beach visit offer dementia patients sensory stimulation, boosting one's mood, exercise, music therapy, and instilling a sense of freedom as non-medicine dementia interventions," he says. "Group travel may simulate psychological interventions, and music at a destination is in line with music therapy programs for those with dementia."

With so many roadblocks to a go-go-go vacation, you may as well shift gears to a slower agenda.

I'm seeing that play out for my own mother, who at 89, is now limited to daytrips. When I call her to confirm an outing to the botanic garden or an outdoor living history museum, her voice brightens. With just a few days' notice, the length of anticipation matches her memory and she has a double gift of expecting a good time, then having it.

My own capacity for planning is as elastic as it ever has been, which is good, considering that, like every traveler, I have to be more flexible than I've ever been.

It's no longer enough to make basic arrangements and expect everything to go as planned: these days, you have to stand by to change your reservations and your expectations as carriers, hotels and destinations adjust their services to their current capabilities. With so many roadblocks to a go-go-go vacation, you may as well shift gears to a slower agenda.


Allow the Days to Unfold

Or, no agenda at all. A few weeks ago, my husband and I took a very long weekend in Asheville, North Carolina, the artsy city in the Blue Ridge mountains. Besides our hotel room, the only reservation I made was to see the Homer Winslow exhibit at its newly renovated art museum. Other than that … well, for four whole days, we spent our calories on one new-to-us restaurant per day, our energy on hiking the hilly downtowns of Asheville and nearby Brevard, and our patience on navigating the hairpin turns of the mountain roads to high-altitude Highland and Cashiers. Our goal wasn't to come back smarter, slimmer or more sophisticated, but simply to let our feet and minds wander.

Wellness travel consultant Samantha Lippiatt declares herself a fan of pricey spas but also says that the end result of deep refreshment is free to anyone willing to plan their trip around "non-negotiables such as working out, getting out in nature, and ensuring good sleep."

That seems to be the sweet spot for making the most of a (thankfully) waning 2022: focus on your big-picture health goals, allow time for the day and experiences to unfold, and release the demands you normally make of yourself without sliding into situations that guarantee a regret hangover.

Agendas are antithetical to true relaxation, says Hoheb, arguing against the popular notion of wellness vacations of goal-packed excursions that stretch physical endurance and willpower.

"Wellness is not about a spa. It's about being reflective and purposeful. It's about culture, food and light activity — knowing your limitations and not going beyond them," she says. "Return home a better version of yourself."  

Joanne Cleaver
Joanne Cleaver is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C. She covers women's issues, travel, entrepreneurship, financial planning and retirement readiness. She has authored seven nonfiction books, the most recent being The Career Lattice: Combat Brain Drain, Improve Company Culture, and Attract Top Talent. Read More
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