WEDNESDAY, Oct. 7, 2020 (American Heart Association News) — Maybe it was the meme that pointed out how Shakespeare used his time in quarantine to write “King Lear.” Maybe it was all those photos of sourdough bread in your social media feed. Maybe you’re just bored.
Whatever the spark – you’re ready to take on a hobby.
“The process of being creative does a whole bunch of really good things for us,” physically and mentally, said James C. Kaufman, professor of educational psychology at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
Kaufman, who has written extensively about creativity, said there are many reasons why a stimulating hobby can help us. The first is pretty simple: It’s fun.
That’s mentally healthy, Kaufman said, because when we’re focused on such an activity, “we’re not thinking about any negative thoughts or fears or worries.”
At its best, a creative activity such as drawing or playing music can put you in a state of “flow,” where you’re intensely caught up in what you’re doing. “This is not shockingly different from what they call runner’s high, or what mountain climbers say they feel.”
Some activities, such as writing with an emphasis on a narrative, as in a journal or blog, can lower harmful stress by helping us organize our thinking, he said. “It helps put all these different thoughts, as if they were loose clothing, onto coat hangers. And it frees up space in our brain.”
That’s not the only way hobbies can help us, researchers say. A 2015 study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that engaging in leisure activities improved mood and stress levels and lowered heart rates. In 2017, a small study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that pleasant leisure activities lowered the blood pressure of Alzheimer’s disease caregivers.
And that’s important in the middle of a pandemic, said Jeanine Parisi, an associate scientist in the department of mental health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “Everything seems a little out of control. Activities are the one thing that could provide structure and give you back a sense of personal control.”
Parisi’s colleague Michelle Carlson, a professor who leads a Johns Hopkins lab devoted to brain health, said the precise mechanism of what’s going on in our brains when we’re happily engaged in an activity isn’t clear. But some of the effects are.
She led a small study published in 2015 in Alzheimer’s & Dementia of older adults who volunteered to mentor young students in Baltimore. Compared to the adults not enrolled in the program, the participants saw growth in both the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain related to executive function, behavior and thinking – and to the hippocampus, which is important to memory.
Others’ research has found benefits from all kinds of pandemic-safe activities: gardening, spending time outdoors, playing a musical instrument, even knitting. And of course, anything that increases physical activity is crucial for heart health and