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The Healing Power of Travel

We talk a lot on this site about how to travel, where to travel and when to travel, but we don’t often talk about why we travel—which just might be the most important question of all.

Many of us rely on travel to provide something we find missing otherwise—novelty, thrills, uncertainty, adventure. But many of us are also shoring up some part of ourselves that needs a bit of mending.

Travel offers numerous healing powers that are always available to us and can take many forms. Below we take a look at a few of them.

Physical Healing

Travel has a long history as a source of physical recuperation and healing, and if this history is sometimes confounding—for example, Atlantic City was hawked as a health spa and medical retreat in its early days—it is not altogether specious.

For inhabitants of major cities a century or so ago, a trip to the ocean meant escaping densely populated, smoke-filled and frequently unsanitary conditions in exchange for air fresh off the open ocean. It’s no surprise that folks who were exposed to wood-burning stoves, train exhaust and horse manure all day long in the city saw some improvements after a few days on the Atlantic coast.

The history of travel for health also includes trips to “miracle” hot springs, to the desert, to the mountains, to wallow in mud and more—and while not all have definitively been proven to be cures for what ails us, they might not be so bad, either (see these benefits of mud baths, for example).

Improving Fitness

For those of us whose days are spent mostly in a car, at a desk or on the couch, the rigors of even laid-back travel can halt a downward fitness slide or help kickstart a health regimen.

On a trip to take photos in Lucerne several years ago, I hauled a backpack filled with camera and computer equipment up and down the hill to the lake for a week. At the beginning of the trip I was feeling a bit out of shape, but by the end of the trip, I was noticeably fitter, both in my stamina and physique. It was a good lesson, not to mention a good head start on an ongoing fitness routine; without that week’s forced fitness march, I might not have gotten myself back on track.

For desk jockeys, even a business trip can offer marked improvement over their usual routine. In my own work, if I ride my bicycle the two and a half blocks to the local deli, my appetite improves noticeably, and I feel way better at the end of the day—from a five-block ride!

You can do the same when you travel. Skip the Uber and walk through a new neighborhood, take the stairs instead of the elevator at your hotel, or try a new activity such as kayaking or mountain biking; any of these can give you a solid start on a fitness regimen that can follow you home.

Emotional Healing

This may be the most commonly cited benefit of travel, with numerous memoirs and movies documenting the use of travel to assuage grief and cope with major life changes. Beyond the bestsellers, many travelers have their own anecdotes of distancing themselves from failed relationships or taking the time a trip affords them to reflect and find solace after the death of a loved one.

Travel is also an endless source of inspiration, which can be emotionally healing in its own way. Meeting new people, seeing great art, hiking through magnificent landscapes and realizing you’re strong enough to get through the challenges that arise on the road can all offer positive effects that last well beyond the span of your trip.

Spiritual Healing

Many travelers find considerable comfort and inspiration when visiting significant religious landmarks, whether it be the Holy Land, the Ganges River, Mecca, monasteries or temples. This type of travel might also take the form of meditation or prayer retreats, or even travel to religious theme parks. Travel for spiritual sustenance and regeneration has historically been a powerful human impulse.

The act of making a pilgrimage is a compelling case in point; many major religions have (or had) some type of pilgrimage as a core experience, and many of these continue to be important today—think immersion in the Ganges for Hindu believers, praying at the Wailing Wall for Jews, visiting the Vatican for Catholics or journeying to the birthplace of Buddha. Learn more about religious tours and spiritual travel.

Simple R&R

Down time can be intensely regenerative. Many travelers find that simple idleness, time away from mundane day-to-day concerns, and a break from friends and colleagues can often lead to healing of the types noted above—physical, emotional, spiritual.

Stress can have insidious effects, particularly the types of stresses that occur in modern life; I know no one who hasn’t nearly lost it in traffic once or twice, for example. But when you indulge in certain kinds of travel—maybe a week at the beach or spa, or reconnecting with nature in the mountains or forest, or indulging your favorite but neglected hobby at length—the physical manifestations of stress often fall away.

More practically, failing to get away has been shown to have real costs in the form of worsened health, diminished productivity and stifled creativity. Even if your vacation is just a reset to avoid falling apart completely, it is worth the effort.

Need more proof? Read Survey Says: Travel Makes Us Happier.

Finally, travel offers the potential for getting your priorities and even your values straight. Inveterate traveler Mark Twain had this to say on the topic:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Now is as good a time as ever to get out of our own little corners and on the road.

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