Brain Boosters

If you have read this column before then you know I am an advocate for maintaining brain activity as we age. I believe, and there is some research that backs me up, that the brain is like any muscle in the body – if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. It is important to maintain both physical and mental activity as a means of aging well and avoiding dementia. When it comes to types of brain use, there is passive and active use. For example, watching something is a passive activity, whether it be TV shows or sports. What is preferable is choosing an activity that requires active brain use – for example, reading, solving puzzles and games, and some non-violent video games. The more thought and analysis that is required the better. My favorites are crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

That brings me to activities that do not have to wait until retirement, but for many may be lifelong and integral to who the person really is. Often, retirement allows the individual to increase time spent in these pastimes. I am speaking about hobbies. Hobbies run the gamut from indoor to outdoor activities and, in most cases, require mental planning and input. Examples include bird watching, woodworking, knitting, and modeling to name a few. The word hobby may be a misnomer because it often describes something inconsequential to fritter away time. With most hobbies, nothing could be further from the truth however, so maybe we could call them avocations. The word “hobby” comes from the term to describe a farm horse that you ride at your leisure; or hobbyhorse, a small wooden horse large enough for only children to ride. Avocation describes something you do when not engaged in your vocation, which is the work you do to make a living. While the two words – hobby and avocation – at first might seem to be opposites, both suggest a calling having a deeper meaning or even part of your identity. Avocation might seem a bit too fancy, so I’ll stick with hobby.

Studies have shown that hobbies are good for both physical and mental health. Having a hobby that requires movement like keeping a garden, hiking, yoga, or sports are a great way to stay in shape and may help lower your blood pressure, weight, waist size, and BMI. But the effect of hobbies on mental health are even greater. These benefits include:

  • Reduced stress. Hobbies are relaxing and reduce cortisol.
  • Taking up a hobby challenges the brain.
  • A hobby can broaden your outlook – it can stretch imagination and creativity.
  • A hobby can help make new friends. Many hobbies have groups, which can help loneliness.
  • A hobby can give a new sense of purpose – learning new skills, taking on challenges.
  • A hobby compels you to take some time for yourself.
  • It’s never too late to start a hobby.

And finally, you don’t have to be good at it. Most hobbies have a learning curve, and everyone starts at the bottom. If you or someone you love are planning retirement, being active once retired is imperative. If you are thinking of taking up bread baking, ballroom dancing, gardening, oil painting, or any new hobby – good for you!

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