Reinvent yourself

Learning something new can go a long way towards giving yourself an overhaul.

What's the common denominator among people who stay young long after their contemporaries have slumped into middle age? It's that they're always learning, flexing their intellectual and creative muscles.

As we get back into the swing of work, we start feeling the need to clear away, sort out and start afresh. And we're not just talking about the kitchen cupboards or summer detox programmes. Think of something you've always wanted to do: maybe it's a photography course, or learning how to play the clarinet, or doing an MBA.

Mastering a technique or sharpening a skill proves anything's possible; and having a class to attend or a hobby to do forces us to take time for ourselves. It allows us to be alone, or to mix with people other than the usual crowd; and forces us to concentrate on something other than the day's same old stressors for a while. And this of course, has all kinds of spin-offs for your health.

Stress buster
In Health and Happiness (Tafelberg), Dr Arien van der Merwe, a member of Shape's advisory board, explains how balancing the right and left sides of the brain improves our ability to manage stress. According to Van der Merwe, we tend to emphasise the left brain (which is responsible for our analytical, rational and logical thinking abilities) in our daily routines; but don't pay enough attention to the right brain, which controls emotions, intuition, creativity and music appreciation abilities. This causes an imbalance, which hampers our ability to effectively deal with stress.

"Make time every day for right brain activities," suggests Van der Merwe. Things like gardening, listening to music, sewing, reading poetry, painting or knitting. It's got nothing to do with how good you are at these activities, and everything to do with enjoyment.

Keeps you young
Oestrogen levels, which assist brain function, fall during menopause. This implies a decrease in brain power, which is why it's important to keep doing things that keep the intellect alive. According to Dr Geraldine Mitton, founder of Youthful Aging (an organisation specialising in anti-ageing health promotion) and also a member of Shape's advisory board, research shows that nerve cells are capable of forming new connection networks throughout life. So as long as the brain is kept stimulated and healthy, it should continue to function normally for as long as we live.

It's cheaper than therapy
And may be just as effective. According to Dr Andrew Weil, in his journal, Self Healing, creating art (which can be anything from candlewicking to cooking) not only reduces stress, but also allows you to get in touch with your feelings and enhance emotional wellbeing overall. In one study, postsurgery patients in Sweden who regularly saw a painting of calm water and trees, exhibited less anxiety and required fewer strong pain drugs than patients who saw no art.

Research also shows that music triggers the release of endorphins (the same effect as exercise, but without the sweat), which reduce levels of stress hormones and can even boost immune function. The most well-researched art therapy, music therapy, has been used to treat stroke patients and Parkinson's sufferers, to ease anxiety in heart attack patients, reduce postsurgical complications, help manage chronic pain and enhance memory in Alzheimer's patients.

What to do?
Think of a right-brain activity you'd really enjoy and start finding out today about what you need to do to make it happen. In case you're stuck for ideas, we've put together Shape's favourite-things-to-enhance-yourself list.

  • Go on a cooking course
    Not only is cooking a brilliant creative outlet, you'll soon become renowned for your killer dinner parties. Go to www.sachefs.co.za and click on "training providers" for a list of cooking schools throughout SA.

  • Do something creative
    You don't need to be seriously talented to be creative. If fine art is not your forte, there's an endless choice of crafts you can try, like fabric painting, pottery, candle-making or mosaic design. Go to www.art.co.za for contact details of teachers and art schools in your area, galleries, useful web sites, societies and events happening on the local art scene.
    The Association of Potters has details of local pottery teachers and galleries. Call them on (021) 683-0153 or (011) 791-5153.

  • Learn another language
    Spanish, Sotho or even sign language. It's quite a challenge for tired brain cells, but seriously impressive (and may come in handy if you're planning on travelling).
    Contact inlingua Language Training Centre www.inlingua.co.za

  • Go dancing
    Whether it's strictly ballroom or simply boogying at your favourite nightclub, dancing is a tonic for body and soul. Not only is it a fun workout, it releases pent-up energy and emotions, leaving you feeling fabby. The Argentine tango (quite different from traditional ballroom dancing) is the latest big thing as far as dance trends go and classes are offered all over South Africa.

  • Take horse riding lessons You don't need to have your own horse to go for lessons. That way it won't cost you a fortune, either. Riding schools to try:
    Hout Bay Riding Centre (021) 790-5286
    Hawkestone Equestrian Centre (031) 768-1280
    Chinta Equestrian Centre (011) 705-1512

  • Go on a self-defence course
    It's not a pleasant thought, but you never know when you might need to defend yourself against an attacker. And self-defence is not necessarily about how to be physically stronger than your opponent. The Wing Tsun technique of self-defence was designed by a woman (we like it already), and teaches women that by building self-confidence, we can tap into our personal power. It's not about how to break someone's nose or punch their lights out, but rather about learning to absorb the power of the opponent to use it against him (or her).
    For information about Wing Tsun self-defense classes, call Cape Town: (021) 422-2637 or 082 956 5022; or Johannesburg: 083 395 8550.

  • Start gardening
    You don't need acres of lawn to cultivate a small vegetable patch or start a herb garden. Even easier: plant herbs and chilli plants in clay pots (which you've made at pottery and decorated at painting class!) and keep them in a sunny spot on your patio or balcony. They don't need much looking after, and there's nothing like cooking with fresh herbs.

  • Learn to scuba dive
    This is not restricted only to those who live on the coast. There are some excellent inland dive sites (like Bass Lake, near Johannesburg), and most inland operators organise trips to the coast. Not only is scuba diving as exciting as it is relaxing, learning to dive will make you feel like you can do absolutely anything.
    Dive South Africa

    Do you have more to add? Leave your favourite activity below.

    - SHAPE

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