All work and no play? It may be time to pick up a hobby.
We know, we know – you’ve heard it before. But some legitimate research shows that a leisure activity can benefit your physical, mental, and cognitive health. And with the cooler months just around the corner, now is the perfect time to figure out how you’ll spend that extra time indoors.
“We generally think of leisure as [being for] children or teenagers, but it’s important to continue developing and maintaining hobbies into adulthood,” says Stephanie Gilbert, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Monica, California. “Hobbies help us maintain emotional balance, enhance our enjoyment of life, and encourage a sense of play.”
Read on to learn about the research on health-boosting hobbies and how to find an easy-to-master activity you’ll love.
Research on leisure and your health
If you’ve never heard of “blue zones,” these are the five regions that contain the longest-living people on the planet, according to a study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. They are Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California. Along with exercise, a balanced diet, and low stress, researchers say that leisure time is a key ingredient in the recipe for longevity.
That’s because engaging in our hobbies can have a range of positive effects, like improving mood and social interaction, and refocusing attention away from negative thoughts, says Matthew Zawadzki, PhD, Director of the Stress and Health Lab and Assistant Professor at the University. from California to Merced.
Each of these benefits decreases the negative effects of day-to-day stress and anxiety in our lives, he explains: “If we reduce the amount of stress we experience, we avoid stress responses that increase our levels of cortisol and heart that are needed. cope with stress. (Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone,” and consistently high levels of cortisol can negatively affect your health by causing inflammation and high blood pressure, according to the Cleveland Clinic.)
Dr. Zawadzki mentions a study he co-authored that was published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in June 2019, which found that stressful events (like arguments or traffic) occur roughly every other day, leading participants to report feeling stressed about 40-70% of the time. “For our hobbies to be the most effective in improving our well-being, they probably have to be a constant presence in our lives, like stress,” he says.
However, consistent does not mean concrete and inflexible. Many people don’t have time, for example, to garden for several hours a day, adds Zawadzki. If we try to set aside time for hobbies every day, we might create more stress in our lives by avoiding responsibilities or putting undue pressure on ourselves when we just can’t find the time, Zawadzki says.
Instead, treat your hobbies as a brief opportunity to reset your mental state, even if it’s only for 5 or 10 minutes at a time.
In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in June 2021, Zawadzki observed that short breaks for music, walks or correspondence with others had positive effects on stress for those caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease (a group very stressed). “The more types of small tasks a person did in a four-hour period, the more positive they felt,” he said.
5 healthy hobbies you can pick up in less than a week
Looking for a free time activity but don’t know where to start? Don’t think about it too much.
Simply put, a hobby is any activity you do on a regular basis for the purpose of having fun, Gilbert says. “I would encourage people to think about what they loved, maybe as a kid or as an adult, and think about whether those hobbies might be something you’re interested in now. Write a list of possibilities, then try each one.
If you need inspiration, consider the following, which almost anyone can quickly adopt and fit into their schedule.
1. Reading can calm your mind
Books are great when it comes to relieving anxiety, says LaTasha Perkins, MD, family physician and assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. “Making time to read can help reassure you by giving you something positive and reassuring to focus on, distracting you from intrusive negative thoughts you may be having,” she explains.
To get started, take a look at Bookshop.org, which connects you to local independent bookstores and offers book suggestions by category (like Books to Thrill and Chill or Rom-Com Pick-Me-Ups). LibraryFinder.org lets you search by zip code for libraries in your area, many of which offer free eBooks. For affordable second-hand books, check out garage sales, second-hand bookstores, or charity shops.
And if the idea of sitting still is off-putting, consider a free trial on Amazon’s Audible platform, which offers audiobooks. You can listen to books while you drive, do the dishes, or walk your dog.
2. Meditation can reduce stress levels
While it may be one of the slowest hobbies on this list, meditation is definitely a heavy hitter when it comes to health benefits. This practice can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate and reduce cortisol levels, a review published in Comprehensive psychoneuroendocrinology in May 2021.
It may also give your brain a boost by improving memory, attention span, and emotional regulation abilities to deal with everyday stressors, the review notes.
To get started, all you need is a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down, according to Mindworks, a nonprofit meditation training organization. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes and try to focus all of your attention on your breathing. Observe your thoughts as if they were passing clouds. If you get caught up in a thought, gently bring your mind back to your breath – inhale, exhale, repeat. For guided meditations, Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer are great free and inexpensive options.
Or try these simple methods to start a meditation practice.
3. Outdoor activities can boost feel-good chemicals
From hiking to gardening, outdoor recreation can help you stay physically fit and emotionally balanced, thanks to the release of feel-good chemicals called endorphins, says Dr. Perkins. “Being outdoors can add another benefit, as studies show you release neuroreceptors from sunlight, which can then trigger more positive thoughts,” she says.
For example, she cites research suggesting that sunlight on the skin stimulates the production of mood-boosting serotonin.
To get started, you can browse outdoor adventure groups on Meetup.com or Facebook groups in your area. You can also ask the employees at your local outdoor store what types of events are happening nearby, such as hiking groups or camping trips.
Or check out this beginner’s guide to walking exercises.
4. Yoga can promote relaxation
Yoga is a great pastime for promoting healthy breathing and relaxation and reducing your body’s stress response, says Perkins. “Even small amounts will have a positive effect on your well-being giving you something to look forward to.”
A study published in December 2020 in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine discovered that yoga engages your parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of your stress, fight or flight response).
Ready to start? Many yoga studios offer low-cost introductory deals for beginners. They should have all the equipment you need for each class, including a yoga mat (although they may charge extra for the mat).
Be sure to bring a water bottle and wear comfortable clothes that you can move around in easily, advises the YMCA. As for what type of class to try, if a full vinyasa yoga class seems daunting, consider a low-key yin session. Yin yoga can be a good choice for beginners because sessions are slow and focus on experimentation and self-exploration, according to the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health.
If you prefer an at-home practice, the Yoga with Adrienne YouTube channel and Glo yoga app are great resources for all levels and styles.
5. Art projects can reduce stress
When was the last time you really let loose on a canvas? Childhood, perhaps?
Research shows that creating visual art is good for us. A study published in 2022 in the International Journal of Women in Technical Education and Employment found that painting improved attention, increased self-esteem and relieved stress.
Go ahead and try it. You will need a pencil, a set of watercolor paints, some paintbrushes and a sketchbook. Or, if you want to level up, pick up some acrylic paints (go for primary colors like red, blue, yellow, white, and black), a paper plate for mixing colors, and a canvas. (Your local craft store should be able to help!)
You can then follow step-by-step painting tutorials on YouTube channels like The Art Sherpa or Painting With Jane. Or, find a painting and tasting event near you with Painting with a Twist.
Even if you are convinced that you are not the artistic type, you can visit an art museum, it can help you relax. A small study, published in March 2018 in Arts & Health, noted that looking at figurative art (i.e. art that depicts “real” things, not abstract ones) can help lower blood pressure. Can’t come in person? Some art museums, including the Louvre in Paris, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Guggenheim in New York, are offering virtual tours.
How to find a hobby you love
If you don’t see something on this list that resonates, don’t worry. The possibilities are limitless. Maybe your idea of a good time is throwing tires at CrossFit, finishing a Sudoku puzzle, or cooking a roast that would make Gordon Ramsay proud. Go with whatever appeals to you.
To start, Gilbert recommends a technique from cognitive behavioral therapy called behavioral activation. “You start small and build on the progress, leading to more lasting change,” she explains. “For example, if you want to start reading as a healthy hobby, start with 15 minutes a day, three times a week. Then after a week, evaluate.
Over time, you can try to devote more time to it (if you wish). “These types of healthy hobbies can improve your mood, decrease stress, increase pleasure, and help you feel generally more satisfied with life,” Gilbert says.