Improve your health with a hobby

14 April 2011

Hobbies aren’t just something to fill time in your retirement. Research shows they can boost your health whatever your age. Behavioural expert Judi James offers tips on how to choose one to suit you.

These days many of us claim to be too busy to have a hobby because of increasing work pressures and the demands of 24/7 society.

But making time for a hobby - even if it’s something quite sedentary as bird watching or stamp collecting - could actually boost your health and help you better handle the stresses of daily life.

Health benefits of hobbies

Research at the Mayo Clinic in the USA presented in 2009 found that engaging in a hobby like reading, quilting, knitting or even playing computer games could reduce the risk of developing memory problems by 40 per cent. At an older age, the same activities reduced the risk by between 30 and 50 per cent.

Those who watched less than seven hours a day of TV were also 50 per cent less likely to develop memory loss than those who spent more time watching TV.

One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 found that ballroom dancing can also cut the risks of developing dementia. Even going to church has health benefits; churchgoers have lower levels of premature death and are less likely to be depressed.

Other studies have found hobbies can reduce blood pressure, alleviate depression and reduce stress levels.


Other benefits of hobbies

Hobbies can help you to:

  • Find new challenges/ways to relax: Behavioural expert Judi James says: “If you’re bored at work, you can try a hobby that provides challenge but, if you’re overstretched in your job, you can always pick something more relaxing and calming.”
  • Switch off from work: “With mobile working tools like laptops and mobiles, we’re overfilling our social hours with business tasks,” explains Judi: “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.

Judi James says: “Many jobs are relentless, meaning there is no moment of celebration or reward - but a challenging hobby can supply that.

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.  Judi says: “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

Judi 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 Judi; “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 Judi;  “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.”

If you want to know more about how new hobbies could benefit you and your family, why not submit a question to our expert panel and we’ll post the answer here shortly.