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Having a hobby can give you a sense of satisfaction, pleasure, relaxation – or exhilaration; an opportunity to socialise with like-minded people or to switch off from everyone and everything around you and immerse yourself in something that’s just for you. Whatever you do and for whatever reason, there’s little doubt that taking time to do something you enjoy on a regular basis can have a positive effect on your sense of wellbeing and help you deal with the stresses of everyday life. But did you know that hobbies can have a significant impact on your physical health too?
So much so that UK GPs are being encouraged to ‘refer’ patients to a broad range of local clubs and activities covering everything from art history to Zumba, to help address their health issues; something you may have heard referred to as “social prescribing”.
Emma Cronin, a registered nurse in our Health at Hand team explains how it works.
Health benefits of hobbies
A growing body of research shows that hobbies can help reduce the risk of depression, improve physical health and reduce social isolation and loneliness.
"It’s widely recognised that an increase in physical activity can help protect us against all sorts of serious health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis… the list goes on. So any pastime that gets you moving more is likely to be beneficial," says Emma.
"Add an element of the outdoors (hiking or gardening, for example), competition, or memorising steps (think tai chi or salsa dancing) and those benefits may extend to a greater sense of wellbeing, self-worth, and improved brain function."
Even relatively sedentary pursuits can help boost health. A 2019 Mayo Clinic study found that mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, playing games, craft activities, using a computer and even going out with friends or to the cinema can help slow or delay age-related memory loss (dementia); something that can’t be done with medication.
Other benefits of hobbies
Hobbies can help you to:
- Find new challenges/ways to relax: “If you’re bored at work, you might try a hobby that provides a challenge. And, if you’re overstretched in your job, doing something more relaxing and calming in your spare time can provide some much needed balance.”
- Switch off from work: “With mobile working tools like laptops and mobiles, we’re overfilling our social hours with business tasks,” explains Emma: “this in turn overinflates the importance of our jobs in our lives. Work does need to be taken seriously but, once it dominates, it becomes harder and harder to see it in context, meaning natural challenges become major emergencies.”
- Forget your worries: "It’s easier to switch off your worries and anxieties when you lose yourself in a hobby. Or you could choose a more energetic hobby where the exercise is an outlet for the kind of pent-up physical stress that occurs where you suffer fight/flight overdrive."
- Enjoy a sense of achievement: Learning new things may give you a sense of achievement you won’t get at work. “Many jobs are relentless, meaning there is no moment of celebration or reward - but a challenging hobby can supply that," says Emma. “Workplace stress often creates huge dents in our self-esteem too, so we see ourselves as losers because we’re struggling with deadlines or tasks. A hobby can remind you of your ability to achieve and win, and therefore re-boot your ego.”
- Make more friends: A more social hobby will mean you meet non-workplace friends, too. “Although it’s good to have colleagues you can discuss your job with, it’s also hugely beneficial to mix with people who see you more for who you are and less for what you do for a living.“
How to choose a hobby
Emma recommends bearing the following in mind when choosing a new interest.
- Do something you enjoy: You don’t need to be good at your hobby – you just need to enjoy it. “Modern pressures to ‘achieve’ make people shy of hobbies that they might not be good at, but there’s no need to produce trophies for universal admiration,” explains Emma; “so what if your pottery is wonky or your paintings unhang-able? It’s the absorption and the fun that count the most.”
- What do you want out of it?
- Do you rate relationships over solitude? Then try evening classes where you work with a group or other shared events.
- Are you a secret performer? If so, amateur dramatics could be your thing.
- Are you happier getting absorbed alone in long-term tasks? Try a website-based task like tracing your family history, or something technical like model-making or drawing.
- Are you task-driven with a competitive streak? Then team sports might give you the buzz of a win that you miss out on during the working day.
- Surprise yourself: It’s good to pick a hobby that doesn’t seem like your ‘thing’ initially. It could be you’re in a rut and that, by choosing more randomly, you could discover new sides to your personality.
- Revisit an old interest: Try something that you were good at or enjoyed at school - art, cookery, woodwork or languages, for instance - but which you’ve dropped because you couldn’t make a career out of it. By tapping into this neglected talent, you might even find a future career-swap coming on.
- Be creative: Your brain needs a break sometimes. “When we’re busy, we place the brain under non-stop pressure, but a hobby allows it to either rest or enjoy a change,” explains Emma; “for this reason, consider a creative hobby like painting, writing or music if your job is very logical and procedural, or a more technical hobby if your job is creative. It will be an ideal way to ‘grow’ the neglected side of your brain.”
Additional support for older adults
If you're retired and looking for activities in your area, The University of the Third Age (or U3A as it's commonly known) is a great place to start. This UK-wide voluntary network offers a wide range of activities to stimulate body and mind, specifically aimed at people in, or approaching, their 'third age' - the phrase they use to describe the time after you stop working full time or raising a family and have more time to pursue new interests. Find out more here or use the interactive map to find a U3A group near you.
Further reading and resources
Health and fitness benefits of gardening - AXA PPP healthcare
Choosing the right sport for you - AXA PPP healthcare
Benefits of hiking - AXA PPP healthcare
Mental health benefits of nature - AXA PPP healthcare
Exercise and fitness hub - AXA PPP healthcare
University of the third age (U3A) - Telephone 020 8466 6139