The – actually fun – hobbies that can make you healthier

Research shows that learning to dance is good for our brains - E+
Research shows that learning to dance is good for our brains - E+

Does your husband anticipate your weekly tango lessons with horror? Is your wife threatening divorce over the driving irons in the hall? Then, you will be glad to know that two recent studies place science firmly on your side.

In August, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study, suggesting that sitting for long periods doing something “passive”, such as watching TV, may well increase your risk of dementia if you are over 60. Meanwhile, researchers from Peking University have reviewed the effect of other leisure activities on the brain. Those who regularly engage in “mental activity” (whether crafts, puzzles or playing an instrument) reduced their risk of dementia by 23 per cent. Those with physical hobbies (including dancing and golf) cut theirs by 17 per cent. Social activities (volunteering, for example) lowered the risk by 7 per cent.

So, which hobbies have positive side effects on your health according to research?


“If you want to stay young and increase your brain power, you might want to take part in Strictly Come Dancing,” says James Goodwin, author of Supercharge Your Brain. “Most research has shown that learning to dance is good for our brains, especially in maintaining life-long processing skills and speed of processing.” In 2012, researchers at North Dakota’s Minot State University found that the Latin-style dance, Zumba, is beneficial to mood and improves certain cognitive skills, such as visual recognition and executive skills like decision making.

Researchers concluded in 2011 that dancing improved balance and therefore reduced falls among older people. And in 2019, research from Deakin University in Victoria, Australia found that moderate-intensity weight-bearing exercise like dance was the most beneficial for bone health.


Do brain-training games have any benefits? The answer, says Goodwin, is some – but perhaps not in the ways you imagine. “Puzzles like these increase our mental arousal, engage our attention impeccably and reduce stress, thereby helping to improve our wellbeing,” he says. They can also improve your thinking skills but only if they involve new learning. So, step away from the daily sudoku and try a new puzzle.


A new study from the University of Florida suggests that gardening reduces stress, anxiety and sadness. The women who were enrolled in the study took twice-weekly lessons. None had gardened before, so green fingers are not necessary to reap these benefits. Gardening has also been shown to reduce the likelihood of vitamin D deficiency, heart attacks and strokes. “Fresh air helps clear our lungs, while sunlight naturally stimulates the production of vitamin D, which also assists our immune system,” says Audrey Tang, author of The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness.


In a study published last March in the Frontiers in Nutrition, a seven-week cooking programme was linked to improved general and mental health, even when participants’ nutrient intake did not change significantly.

“Having something methodical and predictable to engage in regularly can bring a sense of certainty, predictability and calm to a currently inconsistent world,” says Tang. Cooking is also often social, if not in preparation then in the consumption, which elevates moods.



A 2013 study showed that learning to quilt boosts memory function in older adults. Another from 2009 found that knitting and crocheting combats memory loss, and a 2018 survey of 15,000 UK knitters suggested that the hobby can serve as a helpful distraction from chronic pain. “Repetitive, relaxed activities like these also engage the parasympathetic system – also known as the “rest digest” system – which can help reduce the stress hormone cortisol,” explains Tang. “It can bring down blood pressure and breathing rate, which can bring a feeling of relaxation.”

Creative writing

In 2017, a study from the University of Auckland suggested that people who wrote about past stressful events two weeks before having a biopsy – and, crucially, imbued their account with emotion – found that their wound healed faster than those who wrote drier accounts of day-to-day activities. “Writing has always been suggested by therapists and coaches as a means of expressing oneself,” says Tang. “Any form of getting our emotions out can make a huge difference in minimising negative impacts on our bodies.”

Joining a choir

When you sing, you breathe from the diaphragm, change your posture and improve your breathing coordination. All of these have been shown to ease some symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Listening to and playing music reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and, in 2013, a team led by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin found that music increases the antibody immunoglobulin A (which plays an important role in immunity) and also boosts natural killer cell counts (the cells that battle invading germs and bacteria).

Language classes

A recent study found that adults between the ages of 65-75 demonstrated a marked improvement in cognitive function when using language-learning apps. The study was funded by Duolingo, which might give you pause for thought, but either way, there’s no doubt that the bilingual among us are less likely to suffer from cognitive decline in later life, as backed by a plethora of research. “Science tells us that if we take up demanding hobbies that require new learning – whether brain games, art or dancing – there will be distinct brain health benefits,” says Goodwin. “Our higher thinking skills will be maintained and improved. Such activities also represent our best chance of diminishing the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.”