We're not sure about old dogs and new tricks, but for humans of a certain age, the science is clear: Being an absolute beginner is an absolutely great way to stay sharp and strong. Learn from eight women who mastered new skills in their 40s and beyond, and warm up for your next act.
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The next time you catch yourself thinking, "I'm way too old to try that," consider Bernadette Murphy, 58, a writer and self-described scaredy-cat in Park City, Utah. In her late 40s, she went to motorcycle school to research a novel, and ended up rewriting her own story. After a "staid life as a mom, wife, and professor," she took a cross-country moto trip with a friend and went on to learn scuba diving, mountain biking, ice climbing, and singing. With each endeavor, Murphy says, she "dug deep to find the courage"—a move that has helped her through difficulties including a divorce, the death of her dad, and the loss of her stepdaughter to breast cancer. "When I practice things that scare me, I'm nimbler handling challenges," she explains. "I've learned to be okay with discomfort."

In addition to building resilience and (in some activities) physical strength, learning new things fosters mental agility. Up to the mid-1990s, we believed that brain cells died over time, never to be replaced. "Now we know differently," says neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, MD. "The brain remains plastic throughout life and can rewire itself in response to your experiences." His latest book, Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age ($16.09, amazon.com), synthesizes the evidence that regular mental workouts create new neurons and neural connections—a process called neuroplasticity—and slow or prevent cognitive decline. In fact, a 2019 study by University of California-Riverside psychologist Rachel Wu found that subjects aged 58 to 86 who took classes like photography, painting, and Spanish simultaneously scored as well as middle-aged adults (some of whom were 30 years younger) on cognitive tests afterward—and reported feeling reengaged and more capable of learning than they had in years. Adult cognitive growth is attainable, Dr. Wu insists: "It just takes time and dedication." And, perhaps, a role model. Just take it from these women.

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Credit: Illustration by May Van Millingen

Turn Into a Runner

"It's empowering to realize you're capable of things you didn't think you were," says Meesha Diaz Haddad, 50, Living's editorial general manager. She never considered herself sporty, but three years ago, when a woman in her book club mentioned prepping for a 10K, Haddad says, "it intrigued me; she looked like me—not like an athlete." Following the online training program Couch to 5K, Haddad began going on incrementally longer jogs. Having an organized event to train for kept her committed. She completed two 5Ks in her first year and continues to seek out new challenges, like a recent 6.4K "full moon" night run. Another motivator: Observing how running—one of the most effective ways to improve heart health, strengthen bones, and keep the mind keen—increased her energy.

At any age, get checked out by your doctor before starting a new sport, says Christine Burke, a senior vice president with New York Road Runners. Then find good shoes—most running stores offer expert guidance. Stretching before and after is key, especially for older adults, who can have reduced elasticity in their ligaments and tendons and be prone to injuries. (Burke suggests moving stretches like lunges or squats to wake up muscles before, and static stretches to soothe tight muscles after.) Finally, says Burke, "find a community for motivation and accountability." Check the Road Runners Club of America directory for local groups.

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Credit: Illustration by May Van Millingen

Grow a Green Thumb

Gardening yields bountiful physical and mental benefits: It builds muscle and endurance on par with moderate exercise like swimming or walking, and all that optimistic planning and meditative weed-pulling can reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. Plus, one study found that people who grow their own produce are less likely to be overweight.

Start by planting one vegetable or flower you love. Once it grows, "you'll feel confident and inspired to do more," says Rebecca Carpenter, 50, who first potted tomatoes on her D.C.-area patio about 10 years ago to try and get her son to eat healthfully, and achieved much, much more. She went on to earn master-gardener certification, ditch her corporate career, and launch Sprout, a Virginia-based company that creates organic vegetable gardens and teaches people how to grow their own produce.

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Credit: Illustration by May Van Millingen

Become a Yogi

Along with well-documented boosts to flexibility and strength, hatha yoga has been shown to improve older adults' speed and accuracy on tests of mental recall. But Grace Tung, 63, says that what got her hooked—she took her first class at age 40, after starting a job in a new city—was how it made her feel peacefully rooted in her mind and body in a very rootless time. Tung, a cousin of Living executive editor Jennie Tung, now teaches hot yoga in Concord, New Hampshire. But, she points out, any type of practice can improve balance and mobility in mature students. A popular saying in the hot-yoga world resonates with her: "Never too old, never too bad, never too late, never too sick to start all over again from scratch."

Nancy Lewis, a 66-year-old yoga instructor in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, has been "the oldest person in a class" and "made to feel that way." She suggests checking out several studios to find one where you feel welcome right away, or looking online for classes that suit your fitness goals. (Or start at home: We love Adriene Mishler, who teaches all levels through her YouTube channel, Yoga With Adriene, and has more than 10 million subscribers.) And last, treat yourself to yoga clothes! Lewis still remembers her baggy T-shirt falling over her face when she went upside down in her very first class.

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Credit: Illustration by May Van Millingen

Learn a Language

Research indicates that adults can learn foreign languages well enough to enjoy cognitive benefits that are associated with being bilingual as a child, including delayed onset of dementia symptoms and faster recovery from stroke.

Dr. Wu says adults may learn to speak foreign languages more fluently (and with better accents) if they approach it like babies: by listening and experimenting with sounds and words before trying to lock down grammar or tons of vocab. She's currently learning German via a combo of app-based study (she likes Duolingo and Babbel), unabashedly trying to chat with her German husband and mother-in-law, reading children's books and watching kids' shows in the language, and viewing American sitcoms dubbed auf Deutsch (sometimes with German captioning turned on). "YouTube is a gold mine" for finding shows in foreign languages, she says. Maybe a class is more your style. Bonnie Lempa, 70, a math tutor from Oak Park, Illinois, has been studying French for six years, first at a community college, and now in a weekly online conversation class. Her secrets to success are doing a bit of homework daily and not sweating les petites choses. "If you relax your brain, you absorb so much more and put it all together," she says

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Credit: Illustration by May Van Millingen

Catch a Wave

Because surfing is badass, and so are you. Yassi Mesbahzadeh, 41, grew up in San Diego watching surfers from the shore. "I was deathly afraid of the ocean," she admits. After leaving a demanding job three years ago, she decided it was time to conquer her fear. Based on research showing that it takes 30 days to build a habit, she signed up for a month of daily lessons with Surf Diva, finally getting up on the board after two weeks. She loves the zen high of surfing—"the moment you catch that wave, and the world around you comes to a halt"—as well as the physical effects: "I have more definition and energy. I used to slouch, but now I sit up straight. And my calves, feet, and even toes are stronger from standing and balancing on the board." Still, she's most stoked about what it's done for her soul. "I was able to break through the stories I told myself, thinking that I didn't have the talent," she says. "I feel accomplished."

Surfing requires a strong paddle stroke, says Mesbahzadeh, but you should still always practice with people who look out for you on the water. And immersive learning is key; she heads to the ocean five days out of seven. "It's not that you won't learn if you go once a week," she says. "But it takes a lot longer."

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Credit: Illustration by May Van Millingen

Pick Up an Instrument

Scans of musicians' brains taken while they're playing show increased activity in the corpus callosum, the bridge between the left and right hemispheres. This coordinated cognitive activity makes strumming a guitar or tickling the ivories "the mental equivalent of a full-body workout," says Anita Collins, PhD, a researcher in brain development related to music learning and author of The Music Advantage ($22.99, barnesandnoble.com). Plus, she adds, musicians' ability to send messages across their gray matter, lighting up circuitry linked to emotional regulation and executive function, may explain why they often exhibit empathy and strong problem-solving skills. Judy Woodburn, 61, a science writer and editor in Madison, Wisconsin, found that playing piano during the pandemic—after a 40-year hiatus—boosted her concentration. "We're accustomed to that scrolling mind state," she says. "But if I'm playing a scale and screw up, it's immediately apparent that my mind wandered."

Even a few minutes of practice can improve the coordination and synchronization of brain activity; Dr. Collins suggests starting with daily chunks of 15 minutes. Sign up for a trial lesson with a teacher or at a local music school to see if you like the instructor's style. You can also find engaging teachers all over the world online—Woodburn chose one in Moldova whose web-based program lets her progress at her own pace.

Styling by Enrique Méndez Vede

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