Why Travel Leads to a Healthier, Livelier Retirement

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By Tom Sightings

The secrets to a long and healthy life are often thought to be diet and exercise. But you might also want to add travel to that list. While many people travel simply for enjoyment or the desire to do something different, along the way they also broaden their horizons, relieve day-to-day stress and improve their outlook on life in general.

Factor travel into your retirement budget. If your budget is tight, challenge yourself to find ways to cut financial corners without shortchanging your experience. For example, you don't have to fly to popular vacation spots like Florida or Hawaii to reap the benefits. Most people report that their most rewarding trips are not to far-off destinations, but to reunions with family and friends. You can go on vacation off season, take advantage of senior discounts, travel with a social club or alumni organization or volunteer to help plan a trip with a youth group from church or school.

Here are four ways that travel improves life, especially for retirees.

1. More Activity

You hustle through the airport, lug your bags into the hotel, then walk around the city streets, stroll through the museums, swim in the ocean or hike along mountain paths. Many of the extra activities you do on vacation involve physical exercise, which lowers your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and cancer. Need more proof? The famous Framingham Heart Study of women ages 45 to 64 found that women who vacationed at least twice a year enjoyed a significantly lower risk of heart disease than women who hardly ever took a vacation. A separate study showed that taking vacations reduced the risk of death from heart disease in men as well.

2. Social Benefits

Travel can help you deepen relationships with family and friends, and offers opportunities to meet new people as well. Visiting grandma is an age-old custom that cements family ties, not only between generations but among cousins and other far-flung relatives. And with the upsurge in interest about ancestry brought on by Internet sites and DNA research, the family reunion has enjoyed renewed popularity. Group travel, with friends from home or people brought together by travel sites like Road Scholar, helps build social ties which promote good mental health. In addition, travelers can hardly avoid being introduced to new people, often with different backgrounds and different perspectives, and research shows that active social participation, especially later in life, brings positive benefits for our emotional well-being.

3. Cognitive Rewards

You can go on an educational vacation through an organization like Road Scholar, or attend a cultural week at a place like the Chautauqua Institution. But no matter where you travel, you will be meeting new people, steering through unfamiliar places and trying out different things – all activities that stimulate and challenge the brain, which in turn promotes good cognitive function. Travelers who search out different environments are exposed to unfamiliar cultures, which stretches their imaginations and forces them to puzzle out new problems. The novelty of travel – especially the kind that involves navigating in unfamiliar territory – is a key to boosting your brain power. One study even found that regular participation in activities such as travel was associated with a lower risk of dementia later in life.

4. Improved Mood, Lowered Stress

A 2013 survey sponsored by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that the majority of travelers (86 percent) said travel "improves their mood and outlook" about life in general. And most respondents also agreed that travel relieves stress and contributes to physical and mental well-being. While many people are aware of the benefits of taking a vacation, they don't always appreciate that the effects of stress relief and general satisfaction linger on long after they get home. According to the Transamerica report, "Travelers are significantly more likely than non-travelers to feel satisfied about their overall mood and outlook, and retiree travelers are notably more likely than non-retirees to feel satisfied with their ability to get things done."

Tom Sightings blogs at Sightings at 60.