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Get a hobby to keep your brain sharp as you age

Doctors say that nurturing a hobby leads to a host of benefits including lower blood pressure and protection from dementia

A hobby can become a therapeutic outlet for people during situations of stress or grief
A hobby can become a therapeutic outlet for people during situations of stress or grief (Pexels/Greta Hoffman)

Six years ago, Priya Malhotra (49) enrolled herself for a painting course designed for hobbyists at the Chitrakala Parishad in Bengaluru. Her two teenage children were busy with school and tuitions and she practically had the whole day for herself. Her husband travelled on work most of the week and Priya had chosen to be a stay-at-home mother for that reason.

“I found my days stretching endlessly and it was getting harder to reach out to friends who either lived across the town or were busy at work.” To solve the ennui of her weekdays, Priya decided to take painting tutorials. The case for Priya’s hobby was reinforced when her mother started sending pictures of her artworks done as a young girl, lovingly treasured between the pages of an old school atlas. “Painting was actually a long-dormant skill which I rekindled.”

Having a hobby can have far-reaching benefits. A search on the internet lists hobbies as one of the keys to be productive at work. A hobby can also make you more interesting, increase your creativity, help you decompress, allows you to reset, provides you with a wider perspective, motivates and helps you make connections with others. Physically, having a hobby can be beneficial in ways like lowering the blood pressure, depression, and stress levels. 

Also read: How sedentary lifestyle is linked to dementia

Dr. Satish Kumar C R, consultant clinical psychologist at Manipal Hospital, Bengaluru said that in most of his therapy sessions, he tries to motivate people to have a hobby. “A hobby acts like an emotional protector,” he said. According to him, having a hobby that one is passionate about will help stave off addictions, be it alcohol, sex, gaming or any other. However, it should be something a person enjoys doing. “If a person is cognitively, emotionally, and behaviourally inclined while doing the hobby it makes the person engaged in the hobby,” Kumar said.

As one gets older, the benefits of having a hobby has other connotations. Dr. Debanjan Banerjee, consultant psychiatrist and a specialist in geriatric psychiatry at Apollo Multispecialty Hospitals, Kolkata, quotes a Lancet study from 2020 which mentions that 40 per cent of dementia can be minimized with the help of factors like self-engagement and social stimulation. “If a person, say in their fifties or older, started a new hobby, it’d really help the person’s brain nurturance, boost their psychological benefits, help them gain self-esteem and give a healthier scope or area for coping,” Banerjee noted.

As he pointed out, during covid-19, people who started something new like cooking, painting, making songs or YouTube videos coped better against issues like psychological stress, lockdowns or separation from families. “One of the good sides of the lockdown was the revelation that there is a creative side of us , which normally stays dormant during other times. If this aspect of ours could be encouraged further, not only would it give us experiences to cherish, it would also have long-standing benefits in terms of physical and psychological health,” he said.

Going forward, Banerjee believes it is not only important to nurture a hobby that is outside our vocation and which brings us joy, it is also necessary to develop newer hobbies. It shouldn’t be enforced but it should be an activity that we would be passionate about. It could even be learning a new language, he said. 

Also read: How yoga may improve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms

“Picking up new hobbies will help in keeping those parts of the brain active that will be necessary in the long run. The other advantage is that these hobbies could become therapeutic outlets for a person during situations of stress or grief.” The point to be stressed, he noted, is to understand the distinction between one’s work, vocation, and hobby. A hobby should be outside work and vocation. 

PR professional Sridevi Rao is on track with this advice and has always had a hobby or two to pursue, be it knitting, embroidery, playing the keyboard or a new language. Currently, she is learning Spanish, plays the keyboard and knits scarves for family and friends. “You always make time for hobbies, and if someone says they don’t have time for it, they are avoiding it.”

Going back to Priya, she has been avoiding painting the past months. “I am finding no value to my hobby because I don’t know where to sell my paintings. Sometimes I wonder if they are good enough to be sold.” This is a common progression of a hobby into a vocation. It has been ingrained in us to not waste time and do something that’s of value. So, if it’s painting, then the question is where can it be sold. If it’s music, then where can one sing professionally.

Author Bridgid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, believes this approach to hobbies is faulty. She writes that most of us are taught to be productive and we have a structured culture around work. The stress should be on the value of leisure time and doing activities just for leisure. Schulte implores people to have a hobby just to sink into the wonderful experience of being alive.

That is infinitely better in today’s world when most of us, in our down time, surf the phone or are more interested in what’s happening in other people’s lives. “Our hobbies literally serve us as our companions,” Banerjee said.

How to cultivate a new hobby?   
Find a leisurely activity that gives you simple joy without attaching any strings to it, like ‘Will I be good at it?’, ‘Will I make money out of it?’ Experts suggest that the best way to cultivate a new hobby is to:

  1. Allocate some of your free time for the activity.
  2. If undecided, take a few classes on diverse interests and decide on what you actually like doing.
  3. Once decided, organize your hobby by giving it the space, materials if needed, and time.
  4. Join a community of like-minded people so that you can have a space to enjoy and appreciate the nuances of the hobby.

Jayanthi Madhukar is a Bengaluru-based writer.

Also read: Why digital puzzle games could be good for memory in older adults


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