Renew You Challenge: Head back to (virtual) school

The key to a happier life? Lifelong learning. Here’s how to take advantage of online courses. 

Brittany Risher
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The Renew You Challenge is the newest health and wellness experience from Renew by UnitedHealthcare® to help inspire you to take charge of your well-being every day. Every weekday in October, we’re sharing new ideas to help build up your body, mind and spirit.

 

Look at the children in your family or neighborhood: Kids learn a hundred new things a day, just for the joy of it. From toddlers to teens, their brains are always going full speed. And yours can, too.

Research shows that learning a challenging new skill as an older adult can boost your memory and — even better — help you stay independent longer, reports the National Institute on Aging (NIA). 

“Kids don’t learn new things to be mentally active; they learn new things to learn new things,” says Rachel Wu, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. A constant flow of new knowledge keeps kids mentally active, she adds.

Take a page from their book: That open-hearted curiosity can go a long way toward helping you stay mentally sharp — whether you take up conversational French or learn to play the accordion. The magic is in the learning, no matter what it is you decide to take an interest in. 

Has it been decades since you walked into a classroom? No problem. Thanks to online courses, your new classroom could be your kitchen counter, your easy chair or your back porch. Wherever you plug in, learning something new can help you live a healthier, happier life. Here’s how. 

Learning Boosts Your Brainpower

Any time you learn a challenging new skill, your brain has to form a new neural pathway. That pathway allows nerve cells called neurons to send signals between various parts of your nervous system so that you can function. Practicing a new skill over and over again communicates to your brain that this neural pathway is important. As your brain strengthens the pathway, that signaling becomes faster — and the skill becomes easier. Practice really does make perfect. 

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So it’s no surprise that learning new skills enhances different parts of your brain. In a 2015 study, researchers at the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas divided about 200 adults into five groups. Three groups learned and practiced a new skill — digital photography, quilting or both — for at least 15 hours a week. The other two groups spent the same amount of time socializing, playing games or watching movies. After 14 weeks, those who learned a new skill were shown to have increased activity in brain regions associated with attention and concentration. They also saw gains in their memory recall and brain-processing speeds.

How come learning helps boost your brainpower? One reason may be that actively learning new things forces your brain to work harder. That’s a good thing, says Wu — your mind likes and needs to be busy and challenged. In fact, it helps form new neural connections. And that means a stronger, sharper brain. 

Learning Lights Up Your Life

Learning has an amazing snowball effect. “As you learn something new, you may have more motivation to learn more,” Wu says. Sure, that could mean more mental benefits, but even better, it may help you maintain a more positive outlook and stay more active and engaged. 

Plus, learning some skills can help you stay independent for longer, Wu says. For example, learning to use the newest technology so you can set up an online account, use a delivery app on your smartphone or make and receive a video call are all practical skills that can help you feel more confident.  

“You will encounter something in life that’s hard to do and learn,” she explains. “You will get to a point where you need to decide, ‘Will I learn this or depend on someone else to do it for me?’” 

The more you choose to lean on someone else, the more dependent you become. That can have negative trickle-down effects. For example, consider how many older adults have decided — for good reason — to stop going to the supermarket during the coronavirus pandemic. If they know how to set up an account and buy groceries online, they can more easily continue to care for themselves rather than relying on family members or other services.

“Don’t shy away from those learning opportunities,” Wu says. Making the effort to develop a new skill now can make a big difference in your life for years to come. 

Time to Learn

Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to learning new life skills, says Wu. Nor should you! There’s no end to the topics you can dig into online, she says. Just let your interests guide you. 

All learning is worthwhile. You can take up drawing and send pictures to your loved ones or learn photography to document what you see on your walks. The important thing: Choose something that takes time to master. After all, continuing growth and challenges are key to maintaining motivation and seeing benefits, she says. 

There are resources to help you get started right in your area, from your local public library to the community college to senior centers. Start with an internet search — and end up exploring a whole new world.

Here are six ideas to get you started:

Want to speak a foreign language? Check out language-learning software from your public library, download a language app or sign up for an online course at your local community college.

Eager to learn sign language? Look into free instructional videos either online or from the library. 

Longing to compose music? Start with short, how-to internet videos for beginners. Try typing “how to compose music” into your search bar and watch a few to see if any spark your interest.

Reveal your inner artist? Check out art schools and museums near you and ask about their virtual classes. And don’t forget the classic PBS show “The Joy of Painting” with Bob Ross. Many episodes can be viewed online — all you need to do is pull out your paint set and hit play.

Need to boost your tech skills? Sign up for an online program through your local community college or library.

Ready to take up knitting or other handiwork? Go to the internet and type your craft in the search bar. You’ll find an endless selection of videos to teach you how.
 

Help Strengthen Your Health Knowledge

Give yourself the tools you need to help take control of your health today with Renew’s online learning courses. You can even get a personalized learning plan by taking a quick self-assessment that asks a few questions about your interests and goals. UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage members can find them here. Not a member? Learn more here

 

Catch up with the Renew You Challenge:

Download your Renew You Challenge calendar

Day 1: Strengthen Your Core

Day 2: Eat More Real Food Today
Day 3: Do These 6 Important Health Checks 
Day 4: Help Your Hips 
Day 5: Reframe a Negative Thought
Day 6: Help Improve Your Posture 
Day 7: Create a Wish List 
Day 8: Check Your Heart Health in 60 Seconds
Day 9: Help Prevent Falls 
Day 10: Give Your Brain a Workout 
Day 11: Tone Your Upper Body 
Day 12: Have a 10% Less Day
Day 13: Give Yourself a Massage
Day 14: Strengthen Your Total Body 
Day 15: Have a Different Conversation — With Yourself
Day 16: Loosen Up Your Tight Muscles 
Day 17: Reach Out to Someone Younger