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5 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Hobbies

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We get told hobbies are good for us, but what’s the proof? Are there any scientifically proven benefits to hobbies?

Picture to go with blog on the scientifically proven benefits of hobbies

A lot of hobbies sound amazing in terms of offering fantastic benefits.  From curing diseases to creating perfect mental health, there are plenty of posts and websites telling us hobbies can solve all of our problems.  OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but the idea we can do something we enjoy that’s also going to make us healthier sounds almost too good to be true.  Is it hype, exaggeration, wishful thinking, repeated myths, lies,…. or are there truly benefits to hobbies?  What proper scientific research has been done to prove or disprove some of the benefits? 

I’ve had a trawl through published research on hobbies and their benefits to pick out some of the benefits that have been proven by plenty of research and apply to all types of hobbies.  Common sense says that physical activities will make you fitter, but for this work I’ve looked at lots of hobbies to be able to pick some benefits that exist whatever you enjoy doing.

The science

So, what do I know about science?  Perhaps it might sound odd for someone running a business selling products to help people enjoy hobbies despite limitations, but my background is actually chemistry.  In fact, I have a PhD in chemistry (a doctorate).  It was a long time ago, but studying chemistry to a high level involves a lot of time looking at scientific published research.  In a PhD thesis, you include lots of references to other work, some for background, some to support a conclusion, some to help to explain why you did what you did.  You have to learn to read and objectively assess what people say. 

People carrying out research try to get their work published.  This helps with funding and prestige.  Some universities even insist on a minimum number of published articles per year.  A published article is called a paper and anyone carrying out research will aim to get their paper into the best scientific journal they can.  To get into a journal, the paper will be read by usually two other academics with relevant specialities to decide if the work meets the standard for that journal.  The quality of work can vary, but to be published it has at least been peer reviewed. 

For the papers I’ve looked at on hobbies (sometimes called pleasurable leisure activities), the science has usually been done by comparing people doing the hobby to people who don’t and identifying trends.  Some studies are small and that makes the conclusions a little less trustworthy, but if enough studies have been done or have included large numbers of people you can feel confident in the conclusions.

Confirmation bias

One thing to consider whenever looking at any research is confirmation bias.  Humans are known to look more favourably on results that agree with their opinion (and dismiss or reject results that don’t agree).  It’s natural and partly explains why you can still get scientists arguing over important and seemingly clear-cut findings.  I’ve tried to avoid confirmation bias, but I did set out to look for benefits so perhaps I will have been swayed…. 

So, are there scientifically proven benefits to hobbies?

From this project, I believe there is scientific evidence to say that hobbies give positive benefits for depression, dementia, heart health, stress and sleep, and these benefits are there whatever hobby you do.  From what I’ve read, there are more benefits – I’ve just picked these 5 because they have a lot of research.

Depression

Depression icon

Finding – hobbies improve mild depression and depressive symptoms.  They can even help to protect against developing depression.

Depression can include feeling down, loss of interest or enjoyment of things and reduced energy.  It can actually contribute to a lower lifespan and increased risk of type II diabetes.  Hobbies in general help with depression, both in terms of easing especially mild depression, but also forming a protection against developing depression.  When we do a hobby we enjoy, our brain releases chemicals such as dopamine which helps us feel pleasure.  The brain effectively rewards us for doing things we enjoy.  In some places, doctors are even prescribing activities and hobbies to treat mild depression. [1-7]

A lot of research has looked a physical activity and depression and show that even small amounts of mild to moderate physical activity can help depression.  Mild to moderate activity seems better than higher levels of activity.  So aiming to breathe a little heavier, but not get out of breath, and get warm, but not too hot is best.  One study suggested that doing 1 hour of physical activity per week gives a 12% drop in the risk of developing depression.  Another found that walking for 1 hour per day reduces the risk of major depression by 26%.  Although most looked a regular programmes of activity, one study found that fitting exercise into the weekend was almost as good as spreading it out throughout the week.  Physical activity that you enjoy is linked to higher life satisfaction, happiness and reduced loneliness.  Interestingly though, one study found than exercise does not seem to offer protection against anxiety. [8-11]

Singing was found in two studies to improve depression and another study showed than sedentary leisure activities gave helped depression, reduced anxiety, reduced loneliness and increased happiness. [9, 12, 13]

Dementia

Dementia icon

Finding – hobbies can help to protect against developing dementia.

There seems to be a lot of research going into preventing dementia and plenty of studies have found that dementia risk can be reduced by doing hobbies.  It doesn’t seem to be just brain-based hobbies that help either.  Interestingly, doing more than one hobby has more of a protective effect than a single hobby, but any hobby is better than none. [14-16]

Mentally stimulating hobbies are good, such as puzzles, art, reading newspapers and learning new things.  Music is good too, though it seems going for variety adds an extra protection. [17-19]

Heart health

Heart health icon

Finding – hobbies are good for your heart.

Based on research, hobbies are good for your heart and can reduce blood pressure.  It seems that enjoying hobbies can help to maintain coronary blood flow and coronary artery diameter.  A single hobby can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 10% and stroke by 13% according to one study, with multiple hobbies offering even more protection. [3, 20, 21]

As expected, heart health has been linked to physical activities and exercise.  Enjoyable physical activity can help to protect against cardiovascular diseases like ischemic heart attack and stroke.  There’s evidence that physical activity can give some heart regeneration and repair.  Even a little exercise can help or doing an exercise that’s not as physically demanding like tai chi. [22-28]

The heart health benefits don’t just include physical activities, but hobbies such as being creative and reading work too.  Even watching and listening to a fire helps to reduce blood pressure. [29-32]

Stress

Stress icon

Finding – hobbies reduce stress.

Hobbies have been shown to reduce stress and help with coping, along with giving a more positive mood, happiness and life satisfaction.  Research says that hobbies provide a breather from stress, help us cope with stress better and also help with recovery from stress. The stress reducing benefit of hobbies has been linked to a lot of different hobbies. [3, 33-43]

High levels of the hormone cortisol are linked to stress.  These high levels are seen in mental stress, but also diseases that cause physical stress such as diabetes.  Cortisol is needed for life, but at high levels can cause harm.  Hobbies have been shown to reduce cortisol levels. [44]

Sleep

Sleep icon

Finding – hobbies improve the quality of our sleep (though possibly not the duration).

Poor sleep can have a knock-on effect on our health.  Hobbies improve the quality of our sleep (though not always the quantity of sleep).  Benefits to sleep quality can come from a range of hobbies including exercise, hobbies than involve interacting with others and reading before bed.  Research into sleep and physical activity shows that leisure/hobby physical activity gives better sleep, but high occupational/employment physical activity may have the opposite effect. [33, 45-49]

Using a phone or computer on an evening can affect sleep.  It can actually improve sleep quality, especially if it involves some sort of mindfulness, but it can reduce the quality of sleep if it’s involved with bedtime procrastination or is excessive. [50-51]

Conclusion

So to wrap up, hobbies are good for you.  There is scientific research to prove certain benefits to doing something you enjoy.  Interestingly, some benefits are improved by having more than one hobby, but even a little of what you enjoy can be good.

Sorry, by the way for the rubbish pictures – maybe drawing is a hobby I should investigate (or not)!

Have you found any benefits to your hobbies? Please leave a comment below!

References

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Eleanor with Hobby Aids dog Nina
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Dr Eleanor Rogerson founded Hobby Aids because she believes hobbies are good for you and limitations shouldn't stop doing what you enjoy. She is based in North Lincolnshire, UK.

Her background is chemistry, but after years in industry she wanted to work for herself and so went self-employed. During this time she mainly worked as a gardener. Recently she has been diagnosed with arthritis in her hands, which has caused her to discover the gap in the market to cater for hobbies for people with limitations.

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