Why Wanderlust Is Essential For Your Health
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of travel?
Anything. There are no wrong answers.
How would you describe it? Exciting? Stressful? Expensive? Important? Difficult?
Travel can be all of these things, to be sure. Allow me, though, to add my two cents: travel is essential. For happiness. For health.
Travel isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.
Travel isn’t something you do when you’re healthy. It’s something you can do to become healthy. In fact, it’s one of the most important things you can do for your health.
I travel a lot, so I speak from experience. My not-so-humble brag is as follows: I’ve been to 54 countries, six continents, and all 50 US states. Everyone says they want to travel, but not many do. Want to know what the single biggest excuse I hear is? Money. People ask me all the time if I’m independently wealthy, if I’ve inherited a large sum of money. The answer is, unequivocally, no. I’m a musician, bartender, and a writer, and I have saved up and purchased some rental houses. If I can travel, you can too. If you can afford that flat-screen and that new phone and those dinners at Stanford’s, you can afford to travel. I’ve flown to Denmark and Peru and China and Cuba and Belize for under $500. I just bought a nonstop flight from Portland to Amsterdam for $445. Four hundred and forty-five dollars. Where you spend your money is where your priorities lie. You spend $100 to get your eyelashes done every other week, but you can’t spend $250 on a flight to Mexico City? You just bought your seventeenth gun, but you can’t afford to leave the state? You do you, but don’t call me “lucky” when I post pictures from China.
A wise person once said that travel is the only thing you spend money on that makes you richer.
Travel is not only accessible to almost everyone, it’s essential for everyone. Even if you actually can’t afford Europe or get enough time off work to travel to another continent, you CAN head somewhere for a weekend. Let’s say you live in Portland, like me. It’s not that difficult or that expensive to drive to Bend. Fly to San Francisco. Explore Olympic National Park and Painted Hills and Crater Lake and Cape Perpetua and…
The list goes on. We live in an amazing place. On an amazing planet. A planet that you can afford to explore.
But, I digress.
Okay, so we’ve gotten money, everyone’s biggest excuse for not traveling, out of the way, but I know you may have other excuses. Got kids? Travel somewhere with them. Scared to travel? Travel with someone who has traveled extensively. Can’t get the time off work? I know you get, at the very least, two weeks off a year, so shut up and use them.
Put your excuses, reasons, and alibis aside for a moment, and let’s focus on why travel is so important for a healthy you. Here are my top four reasons why travel is great for, essential for, your health.
NUMBER ONE: EXERCISE
Simply put, travel gets you off your butt. Unless you’re the rare, and dare I say, stupid, kind of traveler who spends money to fly across the world and sit in a hotel room and watch Netflix, travel encourages you to walk, to move, to exercise. I’ve climbed 19,000-foot volcanoes in Tanzania and Ecuador, mountain biked in Peru, kayaked in Belize and Alaska, rock climbed in Switzerland, and hiked everywhere from Cuba to Thailand.
Even if you’re not into adventure travel, and you prefer city life, traveling inevitably leads to you being more active. Walking and biking around a city are incredible ways to see it from a street level, to experience more of its neighborhoods, to get a feel for what life in that city is all about. Through walking, you meet people you never would have in a rental car or taxi or tour bus, and you get to experience a city’s and country’s culture in an amazing way. Kathleen and I were in Beijing last month and set out to explore, and before we knew it, we had walked almost 18 miles. Granted, my legs let me know exactly how old I now am the next day, but you get the point.
Obviously, numerous studies have demonstrated how vital exercise is for overall health. Travel gives you the opportunity to get lots of exercise. To get out from behind your desk, get up, and stretch your literal and metaphorical legs, all while having a fantastic time in the process.
NUMBER TWO: STRESS
Sure, travel can be stressful. Anyone who has had to spend the night in an airport because of a canceled flight or who has had to wear the same underwear for a week because of a lost bag can attest to this. Of course, I’ve never worn the same underwear for a week; I’m speaking on behalf of a friend. But overall, travel is a huge check mark in the stress reduction column. For a slice of time, you get to leave behind all that stresses you out: your work deadlines, your house remodel, your drama at home, your mother-in-law. You get to trade these in for white sand, waterfalls, museums, mountains, swimming pools, or wherever your preferred vacation destination may be.
Stress is the number one killer in the United States, according to some metrics, so the reduction in stress brought about by travel can have a huge impact on your overall physical health. The 20-year Framingham Heart Study found that men who don’t take vacations were 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack. For women, that number went up to a shocking 50 percent. Stress has also been scientifically linked to diabetes, hair loss, hypertension, hyperthyroidism, obesity, anxiety disorder, sexual dysfunction, ulcers, and tooth and gum disease, to name a few conditions. These maladies require countless physician’s visits and medications to treat. Perhaps a little preventative travel medicine is just what the doctor ordered.
Not only does being on a trip reduce stress, but research shows that a holiday can lead to less stressful days for at least five weeks afterward. Travel truly is an incredible anti-stress drug. Even during those long stretches when I haven’t been able to travel internationally, a simple weekend hiking trip or beach visit goes a long way towards restoring my sanity, towards nipping the inevitable stress of the next week in the bud.
Taking time off is not a sign of laziness. A sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. A sign of health.
NUMBER THREE: DEPRESSION
Three years ago, I contracted Lyme Disease on a mountain in Oregon. For months, I battled crippling pain, brain fog, muscle aches and constant twitching, blurred vision, migraines, complete lack of energy, and hands so weak I couldn’t text, hold things for long, or play guitar. Six months after going to countless doctors, getting my blood drawn almost 50 times, and being tested for everything from MS to ALS to lupus to spinal stenosis to all sorts of other deficiencies and disorders, I was finally correctly diagnosed after a comprehensive blood panel analysis by a doctor in San Francisco. Needless to say, watching my health rapidly decline, and having a mystery illness leave me in constant pain and rob me of the ability to work, play music, hike, and do many of the things I love, left me pretty depressed. I’m not a lay-in-bed kind of guy, as you might have guessed. After finally being diagnosed, I began a nine-month course of antibiotic treatment. During this time, I turned to my favorite treatment plan: travel.
I went to Greece and Turkey. I watched the sunset over a huge volcanic caldera on Santorini. I walked through the stunning architecture of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. I sat and contemplated life and my place in it in the Parthenon and the Temple of the Olympian Zeus in Athens. I walked alone along the shore in Aegina. I walked on red sand, black sand, white sand. I swam in hot springs on a volcanic cone in the middle of the ocean.
I came home. Though I still felt like I was on my deathbed, and would feel that way for months, I had been reminded of the beauty left in this broken world. Of the bigger picture. That there was still so much to live for, to fight for. Travel pulled me out of my depression, and painted a picture of a better tomorrow. Reminded me that we are here to inspire and encourage others, not wallow in our own misery.
Studies show that I am not the only one to experience travel’s depression-busting effects. A recent 5-year study of 1500 women by the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin definitively demonstrated that women who vacation at least twice a year are almost exactly twice as likely to be free of depression than those who do not.
Travel makes you happy. Not just in the moment; its effects are real and long-lasting. It gives you perspective, clarity, focus. A Cornell University study demonstrated that people experience a direct increase in happiness not only from travel, but from the act of planning the trip as well, and travel’s happiness benefits linger long after the trip is over. Not only does travel make you happy, but travel gives you the opportunity to serve others and make them happy through volunteering opportunities, much like I did in Uganda last year. Giving provides a whole host of additional, proven anti-depression benefits.
NUMBER FOUR: RELATIONSHIPS
Anyone who has traveled with anyone, ever, can attest to the fact that travel gives you a glimpse of who people really are. Who they are when they haven’t slept. Who they are when they can’t speak the language. Who they are when their bags get lost, when they get robbed, when their flight gets canceled, when they get food poisoning. Travel makes it very clear which people you can count on, trust, and do life with.
Two years ago, my friend Brad and I traveled across northern Europe for a couple weeks. The day before our flight from Copenhagen to Budapest, RyanAir forgot to pay its pilots, so they went on strike, and our flight was canceled. We tried to rebook with a different airline, but tickets were upwards of $800 because everyone was apparently doing the same thing. So, we decided to rent a car and drive to Hamburg. Four hours away. A beautiful city with amazing history, culture and architecture that neither of us had ever visited. It was a no-brainer backup plan.
Until it wasn’t.
We arrived around 9 pm, and decided to find a restaurant, grab dinner, and book accommodations and look for recommendations on what to do and see. Unbeknownst to us, we had visited Hamburg not only on a Friday night, not only during Oktoberfest, but also during Reeperbahn, one of the largest music festivals in Europe. As a result, every single hotel, hostel and Airbnb within a 90-mile radius was completely booked, except for a few hostel beds going for $700 apiece.
One other minor detail? It was freezing. Germany was experiencing its coldest day in nine months.
We tried everything. Tried meeting people and offering them money to sleep on their couch. Tried reaching out to friends on Facebook to see if they knew anyone in Hamburg. Tried swiping right on Tinder.
Nothing worked, and finally, around 3 am, we resigned ourselves to bundling up and sleeping in the front seats of our tiny Volkswagen up! Before I could pass out, though, to add insult to injury, I got a call from PayPal, from the United States, informing me that someone had fraudulently bought $2500 of frozen chicken on one of my credit cards.
After about 2 hours of fitful, freezing sleep, and after taking turns recording each other’s snores, Brad and I got up, already laughing about our hapless situation, with a deeper appreciation for each other and for our abilities to handle situations that would have caused others to lose their cool. We explored Hamburg for a few hours, then called an audible and drove to the German coast.
Healthy relationships are absolutely crucial for health, and travel is crucial in forging and strengthening those relationships. Plus, when you travel, you meet amazing people. Period. People from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all over the globe. People whose paths you will cross again. I met a guy from Germany in Greece who writes me every month, asking when I’m going to visit him and his wife in Munich. I know a bar owner in Ecuador who will give me a job in Quito whenever I want. I met a girl at an airport who I’ve gone to Thailand with, climbed mountains in Colorado with.
Travel doesn’t only improve platonic relationships. A study by the Arizona Department of Health and Human Services demonstrates that you are more than twice as likely to be happy with your marriage if you vacation two times a year or more. What better way to see the beauty of the world than with the most beautiful person in your life? There’s a reason honeymoons traditionally involve the trip of a lifetime: traveling with your spouse is about as good, as beautiful, and as meaningful as life gets.
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
In conclusion, it’s clear that travel positively impacts virtually every aspect of your health. Body, mind, heart, soul.
So, what are you waiting for? The right time? The right travel deal? Till you retire? We are never guaranteed tomorrow, and not traveling could be the factor that takes your tomorrows away.
Would you rather go to your grave with a bank account full of money, or a head and heart full of happy memories?
Why are you spending all that money on blood pressure medication and antidepressants? All that time watching TV trying to relax? All that emotion on couples counseling trying to fix your relationship?
While all those things have their place, how about, instead of trips to the pharmacy, the therapist, or the ice cream shop, you plan a trip to a different continent?
Do you want to be healthy? Emotionally, physically, mentally, relationally, spiritually?
Try travel therapy. It just may be the best decision you ever make.