optimal health olympic challenge

An ‘Olympic’ Challenge

According to research, new activities can make you smarter.

By Kellee Katagi

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As I binge-watched the Olympics over the past weeks, I amused myself by imagining an Olympic wrap-up day in which every athlete is randomly assigned to compete in a different sport. Usain Bolt on a dressage horse. Michael Phelps in rugby sevens. Aly Raisman in wrestling. (I swear I thought of this idea before I saw the Reese’s commercial with U.S. Olympic skiing champion Lindsey Vonn.) Chances are good that once these Olympians are out of the comfort zone that is their sport, they may start to resemble mere mortals like the rest of us.

Imagining “Random Olympic Sport Day” has brought to mind the new things I’ve attempted over the past few years. I learned how to play lacrosse so I could practice with my lax-loving kids. Our family took up Spikeball. I made a complete fool of myself trying the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. With each new activity, I got my body moving in new ways and learned to take myself a little less seriously.

Apparently, the new activities made me smarter, too. Research published in Psychological Science showed that learning a new skill boosts cognitive function, at least in older adults (a category my kids would likely assign me to). And although the study didn’t say it, I’ve found that taking on new challenges can also elevate confidence. My friend Stephanie discovered the same thing when she tried stand-up paddleboard yoga for the first time this week. Afterward she posted on social media: “I came. I fell. I got up. I did SUP Yoga last night! Cannot wait to do it again! My whole life I have cared so much about what others think. There is too much fun in this life to live in the comfort zone!” 

My challenge: Try something new this week. And if you get 10 minutes in and feel ridiculous—which you inevitably will—picture Kevin Durant doing rhythmic gymnastics. I promise it will keep you going.

Kellee Katagi headshot lower resKellee Katagi is one of those strange souls who actually enjoys working out for the sake of working out. She’s spent most of her 20-plus-year writing and editing career covering fitness, nutrition and travel, as well as outdoor sports ranging from skiing to spelunking to street luge (yes, that’s a thing).

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