Skip to main content

Never Too Late to Become a Beginner: Try a New Activity For a Life Boost

Jan 27, 2022 12:54PM ● By DR. RANDALL NIEHOFF

Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.  —H.G. Wells 


Our sunny Gulf-coast weather and miles of bike paths permit year-round cycling; we are surrounded by folks getting outside to pedal around, perhaps reliving their youth and creating hopeful futures. Whether enjoying the “runner’s high” of a disciplined workout clad in a sleek uniform or savoring the sensual delights of a lazy cruise outfitted in beach attire, it is encouraging to see the childlike joy on the faces of adults mounted on wheels (be they two,  three, or sometimes four). 

If you’re on a bike, you’re engaging in sport. The term is based on an old Middle English verb that means to divert. It includes any activity that is a diversion from your normal routine and re-creates the self (hence, recreation). Most riders here during the winter are a little shaky when they first mount up: They’re either visitors from the north who haven’t biked since summer or retirees who haven’t pedaled for decades—but they are proof that becoming a beginner again is one of the most life-enriching things you can do.  

While learning an outdoor sport has valuable health benefits for the body, neuroscience studies have found that starting to practice any sport (indoors or out, alone or with others) alters and enhances the brain in a process called activation-dependent structural plasticity. Even the simple act of throwing balls into the air and trying to catch them changes not only gray matter (the brain’s processing center), but also white matter (the networked connections that bind it all together). The good news is that these brain developments happen for older people (who can still remember when they could get up from a chair without sound effects!) just as much as for younger ones, and the more new skills that seniors begin to practice, the faster they seem to learn.  

Learning a new skill (sport), even if you don’t achieve mastery, has benefits beyond the skill itself. In a study of people from ages 60 to 90 conducted by the Center for Vital Longevity at The University of Texas, subjects were split into two groups. One group took classes in digital photography and quilting; the other simply got together and socialized. Those who took the classes had larger improvements in a variety of cognitive areas, ranging from episodic memory to processing speed.  

When people try new activities, they are able to see more. As David Epstein notes in his book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldNobel laureates, compared with other scientists, are at least 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer.  

So, try something new this winter: Go outside, and whether you put your feet to the pedal, the sidewalk, or the sand, practice looking around like a scientist would. Last February, for example, volunteers for the annual shorebird survey counted 2,443 individual birds from 25 species (an unexpected visitor was an all-white Iceland gull, which nests in the Arctic). One morning I saw a five-foot-tall “snowman” sculpted from sand. 

This past summer we vicariously experienced the joyful re-creation and growth of athletes in the summer games of the Olympics and Paralympic Games in Tokyo; this winter we will witness the physical/mental development of the winter Olympians in Beijing. The motto of our modern Olympics is: CITIUS (faster); ALTIUS (higher); FORTIUS (stronger). Such outcomes are the result of the insightful genius of the original Greek Olympics, where the skills demonstrated ranged from athletics to poetry, rhetoric, and music.  

Then and now, all participants started as beginners but grew because of their willingness to compete (from the Latin, together, to seek). The aim: to try to win, but regardless of the score, to become better—physically and mentally.  

Let us begin… again. 


Ran Niehoff has been pedaling and working at learning to see more on Sanibel since 1991.