5 Healthy Hobbies You Can Pick Up in Under a Week

It’s worth carving out time in your schedule for leisure activities — in fact, experts say it’s crucial for your overall health and well-being.

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healthy hobbies reading hiking walking painting
You don't need a ton of equipment or training to engage in these health-boosting hobbies.Stocksy; Getty Images (3); Canva

All work and no play? Maybe it’s time to pick up a hobby.

We know, we know — you’ve heard it before. But there’s some legitimate research showing that a leisurely pursuit can benefit your physical, mental, and cognitive health. And with the cooler months right around the corner, now’s a great time to figure out how you’ll spend that extra time indoors.

“We usually think of hobbies as [being for] children or teenagers, but it's important to continue to develop and maintain hobbies as adults,” says Stephanie Gilbert, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Monica, California. “Hobbies help us maintain emotional balance, enhance our pleasure in life, and encourage a sense of play.”

Read on for the research behind health-boosting hobbies — and how to find an easy-to-master activity you'll love.

The Research on Hobbies and Your Health

If you’ve never heard of the “blue zones,” they’re the five regions that contain the longest-living people on the planet, according to?research published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. They are Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California. Along with exercise, balanced nutrition, and low stress, researchers say that time spent on leisure activities is a key ingredient in the recipe for longevity.

That’s because engaging in our hobbies can have a range of positive effects, like improving mood and social interaction, and refocusing attention away from negative thoughts, says Matthew Zawadzki, PhD, the director of the Stress and Health Lab and an assistant professor at the University of California in Merced.

Each of these benefits decreases the negative effects of day-to-day stress and anxiety in our lives, he explains: “If we lessen the amount of stress we experience, we avoid those stress responses that raise our cortisol and heart levels that are needed to cope with stress.” (Cortisol is often referred to as “the stress hormone,” and consistently high levels of cortisol can negatively affect your health by causing inflammation and high blood pressure, per the?Cleveland Clinic.)

Dr. Zawadzki points to a study he coauthored?that was published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in June 2019, which found that stressful events (like arguments or traffic) occur roughly every other day, leading participants to report feeling stressed anywhere from around 40 to 70 percent of the time. “For our hobbies to be most effective in improving our well-being, they likely need to be a consistent presence in our lives, the way stress is,” he says.

Consistent doesn’t mean concrete and unbending, though. Many people don’t have time to, say, garden for several hours a day, Zawadzki adds. If we try to carve out time for leisure every day, we might create more stress in our lives by avoiding responsibilities or putting undue pressure on ourselves when we simply can’t make time, says Zawadzki.

Instead, think of your hobbies as a brief chance to reset your mental state, even if it’s only for 5 or 10 minutes at a time.

In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in June 2021, Zawadzki observed that small breaks for music, walks, or correspondence with others had positive effects on stress for those caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s (a high-stress group). “The more types of these small tasks a person did over a four-hour period, the more positive they felt,” he said — and in turn, these good feelings led participants to do more positive things while caretaking.

5 Healthy Hobbies You Can Pick Up in Under a Week

Looking for a free-time activity but not sure where to start? Don’t overthink it.

In simple terms, a hobby is any activity you do regularly for the purpose of enjoyment, says Gilbert. “I would encourage people to think about what they used to enjoy, perhaps either as a child or as an adult, and think about whether those hobbies might be something that interests you now. Write a list of possibilities and then try each one.”

If you need some inspiration, consider the following, which just about anyone can adopt quickly and squeeze into their schedule.

1. Reading Can Calm Your Mind

Books are great when it comes to easing anxiety, says LaTasha Perkins, MD, a family physician and an assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. “Taking the time to read can help put your mind at ease by giving you something positive and reassuring to focus on, taking your mind away from negative intrusive thoughts you may be experiencing,” she explains.

To begin, take a look at?Bookshop.org, which connects you with local independent bookstores and offers book suggestions by category (like Books to Thrill and Chill or Rom-Com Pick-Me-Ups). LibraryFinder.org lets you search by zip code for libraries in your area, many of which offer free e-books. For affordable pre-loved books, check out yard sales, used bookstores, or charity stores.

And if the idea of sitting still is off-putting, consider a free trial on Amazon’s Audible platform, which offers audiobooks. You can listen to books while you’re driving, doing dishes, or walking your dog.

2. Meditation Can Lower Stress Levels

Even though it may be one of the slowest-paced hobbies on this list, meditation is certainly a heavy-hitter when it comes to health benefits. This practice can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, and reduce cortisol levels, suggested a review published in Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology in May 2021.

It can also give your brain a boost by improving memory, attention span, and emotional regulation skills for handling everyday stressors, the review noted.

To get started, all you need is a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down, according to the?meditation training nonprofit Mindworks. Set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes and try to focus all your attention on your breathing. Observe your thoughts as if they were clouds passing by. If you get pulled into a thought, gently bring your mind back to your breath — inhale, exhale, repeat. For guided meditations, Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer are some excellent free and low-cost options.

Or try these simple ways to get started with a meditation practice.

3. Outdoor Activities Can Boost Feel-Good Chemicals

From hiking to gardening, outdoor hobbies can help you stay physically fit and emotionally balanced, thanks to the release of feel-good chemicals called endorphins, says Dr. Perkins. “Being outside can add another benefit, as studies show that you release neuroreceptors from being in the sunlight, which can then trigger more positive thoughts,” she says.

For example, she points to research suggesting that sunlight on the skin boosts the production of mood-boosting serotonin.

To get started, you can browse outdoor adventure groups on Meetup.com or Facebook Groups in your area. You can also ask employees at your local outdoor store what kind of events are happening nearby, like hiking groups or camping trips.

Or check out this beginner’s guide to walking workouts.

4. Yoga Can Promote Relaxation

Yoga is a great hobby to promote healthy breathing and relaxation and reduce your body’s stress response, says Perkins. “Even small amounts will have a positive effect on your well-being by giving you something to look forward to.”

A study published in December 2020 in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that yoga engages your parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of your stressed-out, fight-or-flight response).

Ready to get started? Many yoga studios offer lower-price introductory offers for first-timers. They should have all the equipment you need to use in each class, including a yoga mat (though they may charge an extra fee for the mat).

Be sure to bring a water bottle and wear comfortable clothes you can easily move in, the YMCA advises. As for the type of class to try, if a full-on vinyasa yoga class sounds intimidating, consider a low-key yin session. Yin yoga may be a good choice for beginners, as sessions are slow-paced and focus on experimentation and self-exploration, per the?Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health.

If an at-home practice is more your style, the Yoga with Adrienne YouTube channel and the Glo yoga app are great resources for all levels and styles.

5. Art Projects Can Reduce Stress?

When was the last time you really let loose on a canvas? Childhood, perhaps?

Research shows that visual art making is good for us. A study published in 2022 in the?International Journal of Women in Technical Education and Employment found that painting improved attention, increased self-esteem, and relieved stress.

Go ahead and try it. You’ll need a pencil, a set of watercolor paints, a few paintbrushes, and a sketchbook. Or, if you want to level up, choose acrylic paints (opt for primary colors like red, blue, yellow, white, and black), a paper plate for mixing colors, and a canvas. (Your local craft store employees should be able to help!)

You can then follow step-by-step painting tutorials on YouTube channels like The Art Sherpa or Painting With Jane. Or, find a paint-and-sip event near you through Painting With a Twist.

Even if you’re convinced you’re not the artistic type, you can visit an art museum — it can help you feel relaxed. One small study, published March 2018 in Arts & Health, noted that looking at figurative art (that is, art that represents “real” and not abstract things) may help lower blood pressure. Can’t make it in person? Some art museums — including the Louvre in Paris, the?Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the?Guggenheim in New York City offer virtual tours.

How to Find a Hobby You Love

If you don’t see something on this list that resonates, not to worry. The possibilities are endless. Maybe your idea of a good time is throwing around tires at CrossFit, finishing a Sudoku puzzle, or cooking a roast that would make Gordon Ramsay proud. Go with whatever you feel drawn to.

To get started, Gilbert recommends a technique from cognitive behavioral therapy called behavioral activation. “You start small and build on progress, leading to more sustainable change,” she explains. “For example, if you want to start reading as your healthy hobby, start with 15 minutes a day, three times a week. Then after a week, evaluate.”

As time goes on, you can try devoting more time to it (if you wish). “These types of healthy hobbies can improve your mood, decrease your stress, increase enjoyment, and help you feel generally more satisfied in life,” says Gilbert.

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