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Growing scientific research supports the idea that hobbies are good for your mental health. Leading the way in this research is the Global Council on Brain Health, a panel of scientists brought together by AARP and the British organization, Age UK. This council uses brain science to make practical recommendations about mental health, and they suggest that individuals:
- Find new ways to stimulate the brain and challenge the way they think.
- Choose activities that involve both mental engagement and physical exercise.
- Seek out mentally stimulating activities that incorporate social engagement and greater purpose, such as volunteering or mentoring.
“We want people to find activities that work for them and make those activities a part of their daily lives,” says Neil Charness, a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and contributing scientist to the Global Council on Brain Health. “Brain games can be fun, and it is OK to play the games, but people need to do other activities that research shows make a difference in brain health.”
So what activities promote mental health? Pursuing new hobbies and developing new skills have been shown to keep the mind sharp as we age. With these guidelines in mind, you can preserve your mental health and improve your memory with the following activities and hobbies.
1. Learn a Handicraft
This can include knitting, painting, sewing, flower arranging, cooking, jewelry-making, or simply trying a Pinterest idea or two. You can also choose a craft that benefits your mental health and your pet. Decorate Fido's food dish with non-toxic paint or rhinestones. Sew and stuff a simple pet bed for your furry friend to snuggle up in or bake up some organic dog treats using a recipe from the internet.
2. Pick Up (or Return to) a Musical Instrument
The Global Council recommends returning to hobbies from your younger years, and suggests playing a musical instrument. So if you were in band in high school, you could reacquaint yourself with the flute or trumpet. The same goes for those who took piano lessons during childhood. But even if you've never played an instrument, you can still get the positive brain effects by getting musical now. Pick up a used guitar or keyboard and see what kind of YouTube lessons are available online. You'll be tuning your instrument—and your brain—in no time.
3. Get Physical
Physical activity is paramount to mental health according to Charness. “If people do nothing else, they should get regular aerobic exercise. It is good for the brain, as well as for general health.” This can mean something as simple as incorporating a daily walk into your routine or taking on a bigger commitment by joining a local sports association. Many areas have basketball, soccer, volleyball, and other sports leagues for adults seeking a little competition.
4. Get a Pet
Scientists have linked animal interaction with positive mental health as well. So much so that hospitals are opening their doors to therapy animals. According to Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, "It used to be one of the great no-no's to think of an animal in a hospital. Now, I don't know of any major children's hospital that doesn't have at least some kind of animal program." But if you're not ready for the responsibility of a dog, don't worry. One 2016 study showed that even crickets can help. In the study, elderly people who were given five crickets in a cage reported less depression after eight weeks than a control group. Apparently it's the act of caring for a living creature that seems to make the difference.
Pets have the added benefit of keeping us active. Walking (or running with) your dog twice a day is a great way to get outdoors for some physical activity. If you’re more of a cat person, you can still get outdoor walking time with your pet by wheeling him around in a cat stroller. Before making a purchase, check size, maneuverability, and customer reviews.
5. Make Something Tasty
Speaking of baking, cooking is another creative hobby capable of improving brain health. You might tackle a new dinner recipe, try your hand at decorating a cake or cupcakes, or learn how to bake homemade bread or pies. If you're completely inept in the kitchen, consider signing up for a local cooking class, many of which are offered through adult-enrichment programs and local eateries.
So long as you're trying something new and taking a step out of your comfort zone, your brain will benefit from these mind-expanding activities—and you'll improve your mental health and memory, just by trying new activities and experiences!