This month the Good Spa Guide is looking at ways to age well, to embrace our advancing years with joie de vivre rather than back-peddle furiously and pretend it isn’t happening. One of the ways we can make our later years more colourful is to take up a challenge by learning something totally new. Plus, new findings in cognitive science suggest that learning mentally demanding skills improve memory and slow cognitive aging.
Growing older doesn’t mean you have to take up gardening or doing puzzles, and running a marathon is not a pre-requisite for hitting forty or fifty – neither are good for your knees. You can learn a language or musical instrument such as piano or cello, or even learn to dance – if ballet or ballroom seems a bit energetic, try tap-dancing. Many older people take up tennis, golf or badminton: joining a club will give you a wider social circle, too. When you are older, there is no pressure to transform your new skill into a career – you can simply do it for fun.
The idea that older brains can’t acquire new information or ‘learn new skills’ is no longer considered the case: more recent studies in extended neuroplasticity show the adult brain is far more fertile than we used to assume. Every time you memorise new information or learn a new skill, the neurons and connections in your brain increase – even when you are over 50. We should all go back to school.
But it’s not just academic studies that can help our ageing brains. You can learn new skills such as fixing your car, photography, or dancing (see below) – so long as it is mentally challenging and out of your comfort zone. Word puzzles don’t count.
Apart from the neurological benefits, there are many other reasons for launching yourself into a whole new hobby. For one, it gives you something to talk about. Plus, it gives you something to look forward to each week, adding an element of frisson to your life without having to resort to affairs and sports car clichés.
It’s empowering too. You don’t feel like you are fading gently into that good night but seizing life with both hands. We’re never too old to have new adventures: daring to do something you’ve always wanted to do, but perhaps been afraid to try, can open new doors of possibility in your life. Whatever you decided to do, the important thing is that you love it, that it (to borrow from decluttering guru Marie Kondo) “sparks joy”.
Some forward-looking spas, here and abroad, recognise that we need more than just a massage and a bit of yoga to improve our wellbeing. Some have incorporated a learning activity into their wellbeing menus. So, if you fancy a dabble at something new or are seeking a gift for an adventurous special someone, here are some spa breaks to teach them a new trick or two.
Get back in the saddle then soothe your aching core in the spa hydropool at Lucknam’s Saddle and Spa Day, which is suitable for all ages and abilities. Arrive in the morning for a one-hour instructional hack, riding out in 500 acres of stunning parkland with a member of staff. After a two-course lunch at The Brasserie, slide into the terribly chic spa for an afternoon of relaxation. If only all riding lessons ended this way!
Studies show that learning a skill while moving and socialising – such as dancing – can perk up an ageing brain. Ragdale Hall Spa have come up with a two-night dance retreat, where you can get fit, have fun and learn a few choreographed routines. You can even dress up if you fancy.
The Headland Hotel commands a majestic view of Newquay’s famous Fistral Beach, one of the best surf breaks in the UK. Check into a stylish room or suite and head down to The Surf Sanctuary for private lessons and group classes, from beginners all the way up. Having mastered the waves, you can languish in the lovely spa and reward yourself with a signature treatment inspired by the ocean. Way to have a mid-life crisis.
Miraval were probably the first wellness retreat to recognise that physical and mental challenges contributed to our health and wellbeing, adding equine therapy and zip-wiring to their elite desert retreats. They offer lots of creative classes too, from horse painting (as in applying paint to an actual horse) to mandala building and photography classes; useful if you fancy relaunching yourself as a late-life influencer. This ‘stroll’ class gets you outside and moving while understanding how to harness light in your work.
Champneys offer swimming lessons at most of their health retreats, where you can master or totally relearn your breast stroke or front crawl using Steven Shaw’s holistic approach. Their two-night retreats aim to help you swim in a way that gives you good body alignment (hence the Alexander Technique lesson included) enhancing strength and easing tension. You will have an individual stroke analysis session, group sessions and a one-to-one lesson.