Humans are built for growth, both physically and mentally, and trying new things is the perfect way to challenge yourself, embrace new perspectives, and experience things differently. After all, there’s got to be a reason why adults constantly encouraged you to try new things as a kid (most of those offensive vegetables ended up being okay, right?).
Oftentimes, people associate trying something new with learning a new language or reading a new book. But learning new skills isn’t just about broadening your mental horizons — it’s just as important to explore learning various physical activities, too.
In fact, trying out a new sport is proven to be extremely beneficial for both your body and mind!
Some people can find it daunting to jump into an all-new sport, and it’s completely valid to feel uncertain about it. But that’s also kind of the point, isn’t it? Trying new things is all about confronting that hesitation and overcoming the fear of the “unknown.”
Plus, trying a new sport is so much more than just switching up your exercise routine — in fact, there may actually be benefits that go beyond strict cognitive learning!
Let’s check out the science behind how and why your brain reacts to the challenge of a new sport, as well as a few other benefits that come with it.
Why Trying a New Sport is Good for You, According to Science
The brain is a complicated little thing, but if there’s one thing we know, it’s that it LOVES to learn. So much so that it quite literally grows to “make space” for the learning process.
This idea is known as neuroplasticity. The theory states that the brain alters its structure to accommodate developmental changes and learning. Research has shown that when you’re learning or practicing a new skill, your brain expands in volume in the areas relevant to what you’re doing. This expansion is theorized to lead to an increase in grey matter, which translates to growth for extra neural resources (like neurons, synapses, or glial cells).
But it doesn’t stop there — let’s dig a little deeper to see what other benefits come from experimenting with a new athletic pastime.
How the Brain Reacts to Learning a New Sport
There’s no arguing that physical activity is an important aspect to healthy living — and, as you can probably guess, it benefits more than just the physical health of your body.
Studies have shown that developing and executing new motor skills can be just as cognitively challenging as other intellect-based activities (think brain teasers or crossword puzzles). In other words, a new sport can be just as effective at helping your brain grow as more “traditional” brain challenges.
...Or, maybe even more effective. In addition to general neuroplasticity, trying a new athletic activity stimulates the motor cortex and increases myelination (a process that allows neurons to communicate more effectively). Myelination was initially believed to only change during childhood or adolescence, but experimentation around adopting new physical activities led researchers to believe that myelination could potentially be stimulated in adults, too.
Basically, just through learning a new sport or movement patterns, you could promote positive brain growth that typically wouldn’t change otherwise during adulthood — pretty nifty, right? It’s practically like having a hand in your own brain development.
And, in addition to helping your brain grow, acquiring new skills is correlated with longevity and happiness. Essentially, when you process a positive experience, it activates the part of the brain that helps accelerate its ability to learn, meaning happiness and learning often come hand-in-hand. In turn, this causes your brain to generate positive emotions or even euphoric feelings throughout the learning process. Combine that with the boost of endorphins from doing physical activity, and you’ve got yourself a wonderful chemical cocktail of happy hormones.
As a result, all these positive feelings and efforts to learn are believed to contribute to one’s overall longevity. Generally, learning is thought to help keep your mind sharp, so the chance to learn a new sport may improve some of your cognitive abilities, like thinking strategically, having coordination, or developing a better reaction time.
So, how’s your brain feeling now? It’s probably pretty excited to learn (about itself, no less).
But all of this is only focusing on how a new sport helps the inside of your head — what about everything else?
Additional Benefits of Trying a New Sport
Now that you have a better idea of how you can mentally benefit from a new physical activity, let’s move onto some other bonuses that sweeten the pot even further.
Taking on a new athletic activity can open up another realm of external benefits for you. That’s right — on top of being a great way to challenge your brain to tackle a new activity, getting involved in another sport will have a positive impact on your physical and social well-being, too.
And while those benefits may not sound quite as science-y as terms like “neuroplasticity” or “myelination,” they’re just as important to take into consideration. After all, we tend to think of sports from a physical point of view, so you might as well know all the great stuff you’ll gain from it, right?
Decreased Risk of Injury
It’s sort of naturally implied that joining a new sports activity is good for your body, but it’s not solely because it’s a good source of exercise. That’s actually more of a side bonus, relative to the fact that playing in more than one sport can actually help reduce your risk of injury.
You heard right — studies have shown that multisport athletes often have better neuromuscular control relative to athletes who focus on only one sport. The development of coordination and control in a variety of sport-specific movements helps prevent form errors during sports performance, thus directly reducing the chance of injury. Playing in more than one sport is particularly important for youth athletes, as the variety of activity helps them develop fundamental movement skills from a young age.
In fact, specializing in only one sport has been a bit of a concern for some time now. Previous studies indicate that limiting a young athlete to a single sport can increase their chance of burnout, overuse injuries, and even social isolation. While it’s common to focus heavily in one area, incorporating other sports and training methods diversifies the type of movement (and social influences) an athlete is exposed to.
So rather than sticking to the same sport and training routine all the time, try to branch out to a few other options. It’ll help both your brain and body get a good workout, and provide some helpful preventative measures that would otherwise hinder all your hard work.
Active Rest Days
Now, with all that being said, don’t feel pressured to have to take up a super intensive training schedule to learn a new sport — that’s definitely more geared towards burnout, as opposed to just encouraging your mind and body to learn something new.
Instead, try incorporating your new activity within your current schedule. For example, you could find an extra pocket of time for some recreational sports. Or, if you don’t have enough time in the week for that, you could try mixing in some new sports on your active rest days (or summer vacations — ultimate frisbee, anyone?).
Using your active rest days to try out a new physical activity can be a super productive use of your time. Active recovery is all about working your body just enough to increase blood flow without overworking your muscles — which can align pretty well with trying a new sport, since you won’t necessarily be familiar with it (meaning you’re much less likely to overwork yourself).
Plus, if you approach your new sport more recreationally, it can serve as a great stress relief from any of the intense training you may do throughout the rest of the week.
And remember: your active rest days don’t have to be the same every time! Consider having a revolving list of sports to experiment with — why limit yourself?
Social Circles and Athletic Peers
Another great fringe benefit of experimenting with different sports is the new experiences you’ll have — even if you’re just sampling a new athletic realm.
One of the best parts of learning a new athletic skill is the opportunity to interact with a plethora of different people with a common interest. Whether you meet a group in person at a local community center or sporting event, or if you visit discussion posts and forums online about your new sport, you have an entirely new-to-you community to explore! Even better, if you join a recreational league, you’ll already have a set group of people to turn to.
The more you get involved with a variety of sports, the more opportunities you get to interact with fellow athletic peers (which may be one of the most fun ways to learn new things). And who knows — maybe you can introduce them to the world of your favorite activities, creating a mutual exchange of athletic enlightenment.
Although you may feel that you’ve already found your favorite sport or means of exercising, don’t rule out the opportunity to try something new! While not every sport you try will end up being your favorite, the more you expand your horizons, the more likely you are to figure out what you do and don’t like in your athletic endeavors — and that can contribute a lot to figuring out what works best for you in a sport.
As you know now, your brain is made for learning and taking on new challenges. It thrives off of the chance to experience new things, and even more so if it’s something you start to enjoy, so don’t limit its chances (or yours) by staying comfortable in something that already works.
Trying new things is optimal for growth — and sports are no exception. The next time you find yourself wanting a little something different, don’t hesitate to dip your toe into another experience. Even if it seems a bit intimidating at first, it’s well worth trying anyway; both your body and mind will thank you.