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How Learning a New Hobby Can Boost Brain Health

A new hobby could be just the thing to spark your passion and purpose.

By Lisa Rosen

Over the course of several decades and as many careers, Charlene Steen has been a ventriloquist, an art history teacher, a lawyer, and a criminal psychologist. So it makes sense that after her retirement at the age of 76, the ever-adventurous Steen would dive into an exciting variety of hobbies. 

She started painting, and found a passion for it that surprised her. “I took a great class called ‘Fearless Abstract Painting’ in Sonoma, which is our adjacent community,” says the California resident. “The teacher is marvelous. She really is very freeing. And it’s exciting to me: I don’t plan any of the artwork that I do. The inspiration comes easily. I don’t know how to explain it exactly; I start working and then I throw stuff on it and take stuff off, and I scrape things and I paint over it and add stuff, and it’s a very free expression—and most of them come out pretty good.” 

Woman in a green sweater on her couch holding a guitar while watching a guitar tutorial on her iPad

How a New Hobby Can Benefit your Brain

Taking up a hobby as an older adult is great for mind, body, and spirit. But—and this may sound obvious—it must be something that gives you pleasure. “People come to my office doing crossword puzzles, clearly frustrated by them, and that’s not helpful,” notes Virginia Templeton, MD, director of MemoryCare outpatient dementia care program, a nonprofit clinic in Asheville, North Carolina. 

When working with the families of people with dementia, Dr. Templeton says “The most common question we get from family members is: ‘What can I do to protect my brain?’ Along with exercise, the best thing you can do is get involved with things you enjoy, because then you’ll want to keep doing them.” It doesn’t matter what the hobby is—arranging flowers, playing guitar, or salsa dancing—if the idea of doing it appeals to you, it’s the one to try. 

Dr. Templeton adds that when the hobby combines a new challenge with physical exercise, “the benefits are even greater.” (See Pickleball sidebar for one fun option.) 

Sophia Chang, MD, MPH, and internist says, “There’s an element of wonder and joy that people get from discovering something new. It not only exercises your brain, it also produces endorphins, happy emotions.” 

Art is just one of Steen’s happy new hobbies. She also started writing poems and short stories, forming a writing group with three other people. They get together every two weeks to share and critique their work. “We usually wind up talking for about 2 1⁄2 hours,” she says. 

Steen even wrote a five-minute script for a short play, and it was produced on Zoom. “I probably wouldn’t have kept at it if we didn’t have a group, because it pushes me forward,” she says. “If you have to hand something in, then you do it.” 

A woman in a red kayak and a man behind her pushing the kayak into the lake

Sharing Hobbies

Sharing a hobby with peers is particularly beneficial, agrees Dr. Kumar Dharmarajan, cardiologist, geriatrician, and Associate Chief Medical Officer at Clover Health. “Socializing is one of the key factors to a person’s emotional health and well-being,” he explains. According to the American Public Health Association, interacting with peers has been shown to improve mood, memory, and cognitive skills. 

“All of this stuff makes me feel young,” says Steen, who’s 85. “I like to think of myself as much younger than my age. Even though 

I may look my age, I try not to act my age. I feel very alive and active, and there’s tons of stuff to do and things to look forward to in the future. Just having goals, things that you’re looking forward to, keeps you young. It’s never a dull moment with me.” 

Steen’s next goal? She’s started playing cello again after a break of many years, and hopes to form a chamber orchestra. According to Jaime Kurtz, associate professor of psychology at James Madison University in Virginia and author of the audiobook The Psychology of Happiness, hobbies help us structure our time. Enjoying the challenge makes that time fly. They make us more interested and interesting

“They add layers to your identity, richness to your self- concept,” Kurtz notes in Psychology Today. “People want to be around those with passions, with a sense of curiosity, with stories to tell. You not only feel more inspired when you have a rich and active life, but you will inspire others as well.” 

So pick up a pen, a brush, a racket, a knitting needle, or a guitar, and give it a go. All you have to gain is a new delight.

Three woman talking in a tennis court with their pickleball paddles and ball

Pickleball: Funny Name, Fun Game 

Have you played pickle ball yet? The game with the silly name is a combination of tennis, badminton, and ping pong. It shares the benefits of all three, while shedding some of the drawbacks. Chances are good there’s a league near you, because Pickleball has taken off in recent years —particularly as a sport for baby boomers. 

It takes less time to play a pickleball game than a tennis match, and the court is smaller, so it’s easier to keep the ball in play. 

Less lateral movement reduces stress to muscles, tendons, and joints. The light ball doesn’t move as fast as a tennis ball—great for people with reflexes that aren’t quite as fast as they used to be—but it’s still terrific for maintaining hand-eye coordination, balance, and flexibility. 

The cardio workout is better than badminton or ping pong, but it’s almost as easy to pick up, so it’s easier to stick with it. 

A 2015 study from The International Journal of Research in Exercise Physiology suggests that seniors playing Pickleball three times a week saw a marked improvement in blood pressure and cardiovascular fitness. 

And most importantly, it’s fun! Pickleball can be played as a singles or doubles game, which adds to the fun. Look online for a league near you (globalpickleball.network has a list) or start one of your own! 

It’s never too late to start a new hobby. With SilverSneakers you can join senior health and fitness classes that match your interests. SilverSneakers is available to all Clover Health members at no cost. Contact Clover Health today to learn more about our plans which all include SilverSneakers and other supplemental benefits so we can help you get started on your health and fitness journey. We’re available from 8am to 8pm local time, 7 days a week,* at 1-800-836-6890.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Clover Living magazine.

 

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Kumar Dharmarajan and Dr. Sophia Chang.

Published on 4/27/22

Photo credit: Getty