Vigorous exercise vs. a quiet hobby: which one is better for your health? A hobby, or avocation, can help improve your health in five different ways–even if it doesn’t involve vigorous exercise.

This year for Self-Care Sunday we’re exploring goal-setting and how setting goals in ten different domains of our lives will help us improve our self-care. January’s posts dealt with the different aspects of goal-setting. February’s posts dealt with goal-setting in the relational domain. The posts in March will explore goal-setting in the avocation domain.

Vigorous exercise vs. a quiet hobby: which one is better for your health? A hobby, or avocation, can help improve your health in five different ways--even if it doesn't involve vigorous exercise. #avocation #hobby #vigorousexercise #health #stress #stressrelief #birding

Is Every Hobby Created Equal?

“Mountain biking is a sport,” Pedro declared. “Birding isn’t.” He turned on the blinkers and moved into the other lane, careful to leave room for the trailer full of mountain bikes he pulled behind the school’s van.

“Not only is birding a sport,” I countered, “but it’s the most popular sport in the United States.” I rolled down my window a smidge to let the fetid air escape. Ten hot, sweaty teenagers with dirt smudges slumped in the seats behind me. Exhaustion had pulled their eyelids closed for most of the trip home.

“Walking around with binoculars glued to your face looking for small flying objects is NOT a sport,” he insisted.

“Hey, I don’t make this stuff up,” I assured him with a laugh at his description of birding. “I read it on a government website.”

“You can never trust the government,” he said. “Birding is a hobby, not a sport.”

“Mountain biking is a hobby, too,” I said.

“I’ll give you that,” he said, “it’s a hobby AND a sport. They have races and competitions.”

“So does birding,” I reminded him. “Ever heard of the Big Year? The Big Day?”

“Mountain biking gets your heart pounding and works out your cardiovascular system. Shuffling around looking for birds doesn’t do that.” He nodded towards the kids behind us. “I’ve never seen a group of birders look like that after birding for four hours.”

Wait! Is Birding Really a Sport?

“I don’t know about that,” I argued. “I’ve burned hundreds of calories hiking to remote places to see rare birds. And when I see a new one, my heart pops along at a rapid pace.”

Vigorous exercise vs. a quiet hobby: which one is better for your health? A hobby, or avocation, can help improve your health in five different ways--even if it doesn't involve vigorous exercise. #avocation #hobby #vigorousexercise #health #stress #stressrelief #birding

“I suppose SOME people who bird elevate it to a sport,” he conceded. “But not everyone with a pair of binoculars who calls themselves a birder actually participates in the sport.”

“And not everyone who hops on a bike with wide tires and rides around the block participates in the sport of mountain biking, either.”

“True,” he slowed to turn into the school parking lot, “but don’t tell me that the health benefits of birding come anywhere close to the health benefits of mountain biking!”

I ignored his challenge because I didn’t have facts to prove it and busied myself with waking the kids up instead. Inside, I knew birding had just as many health benefits as mountain biking—even if most birders didn’t get a cardiovascular workout.

I just had to prove it.

What the Experts Say

Without a doubt, we need a certain amount of cardiovascular exercise every week. Experts recommend 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day at the least. For optimal benefits, we need vigorous exercise. Without vigorous exercise, our indoor plumbing gets clogged up.

If you only exercise vigorously every so often, it’s kind of like only flushing your toilet once a month. Ewwww!

Sprinting, walking briskly uphill, playing tennis, or hiking all cause our heart to pound. A pounding heart produces enzymes that help carry LDL (low-density lipoproteins) out of your system. It also creates fluffy protein particles that work more effectively at removing LDL.

In other words, vigorous exercise flushes your system of dangerous LDL. Exercise also keeps the rest of your body…well, regular.

Vigorous exercise relieves stress, lowers cortisol levels (which can make you gain weight if the levels get too high), promotes mental health, helps you sleep better, and a host of other positive things

I’ll admit, birding doesn’t usually fall into the vigorous exercise category for me or most birders. We often gather at the sewer ponds to find rarities. Seriously, birders love sewer ponds—only we refer to them as ‘recharge basins’ because it doesn’t sound so gross. I digress.

But does birding have health benefits even if birders don’t get vigorous exercise?  

Health Benefits of Hobbies—Even if They Don’t Include Vigorous Exercise

Even though quilters and birders will probably never work up a sweat, quilting and birding still have important health benefits—as do all avocations or hobbies. Current research has shown that having a hobby will benefit our health in five different ways.

1. Recovery

Our avocations help us recover from work (and who doesn’t need recovery from the stresses of a job?). According to Eschleman, et. al, in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology,

“Creative activity was found to have both indirect effects and direct effects on performance‐related outcomes, but the effects varied by the type of performance‐related outcome. The results indicate that organizations may benefit from encouraging employees to consider creative activities in their efforts to recover from work.”

Kevin J. Eschleman

Creative avocations, unlike work, give us an opportunity to master skills in a non-stressful environment. No one looks over your shoulder to make sure you knit and purl correctly. The unhurried pace of creative hobbies allows us to gain confidence in our ability to learn new things.

2. Mental Health Benefits

We all know the mental-health benefits of exercise, but now researchers have shown the mental-health benefits of hobbies. A study published in the September 2009 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine shows that when people participated in pleasurable activities, they had lower measurements in the following areas: blood pressure, total cortisol, waist circumference, and body mass index. They also felt they had better physical functioning.

In addition, the researchers found,

“The PEAT (Pittsburgh Enjoyable Activities Test) was correlated with higher levels of positive psychosocial states and lower levels of depression and negative affect.”

Pressman, et al

Doing things that give us pleasure helps regulate our emotions. Perhaps because participating in a hobby or avocation also relieves stress.

3. Stress Release

Another study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine in August of 2015 showed the relationship between leisure activities (hobbies) and stress.

“Multilevel models revealed that participants had more positive and less negative mood, more interest, less stress, and lower heart rate when engaging in leisure than when not.”

Zawadzki, et al.

When we participate in activities that we love, our stress levels go down. It seems like a no-brainer, but all too often we fail to schedule in time to do things we love.

Doing creative things we love boosts our positive affect the next day, too. Kind of like a stress-relief BOGO.

4. Psychosocial Benefits

Avocations we participate in with other people, such as bowling leagues, softball teams, or volleyball can lower our anxiety, stress, and depression. According to one research study,

Whether it’s due to the endorphin rush of high-impact exercise, the satisfaction of working towards a shared goal, the social support system that comes with being part of a team, or a combination of all these factors, the overall benefit of team sport on mental health is undeniable.”

Angela Smith, Group Account Director, Roy Morgan Research

All too often we isolate ourselves with the lie that we ‘don’t have time’ for things we enjoy. Maybe we need to think about the negative effects of not taking time—loneliness, isolation, stress, and anxiety.

All too often we isolate ourselves with the lie that we 'don't have time' for things we enjoy. #hobby #avocation #mentalhealth Click To Tweet

5. Physical Health

The physical health benefits of hobbies don’t necessarily come from vigorous exercise—after all, you can’t compare knitting and a good game of tennis. Nor can you compare mountain biking with birding.

Vigorous exercise can help reduce stress—especially if it falls into the avocation domain—but studies clearly show that relaxing avocations enhance our physical health as well.

The benefits don’t look as obvious though. Quilters don’t show up with sweaty armpits after a quilting session—but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t benefitted physically from quilting.

According to Matthew Zawdzki, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Merced, avocations help people lower their stress levels. By lowering stress levels, they take a load off their body (stress overloads the body).

Do You Really Need a Hobby?

Do you really need a hobby? Only if you care about your health. Self-care means we pay attention to our health. Next week I’ll talk about the importance of scheduling time for your avocations. Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that your life depends on it.

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