When it comes to your health, you already know how important it is to eat well and stay active. But other hobbies and lifestyle changes—that have nothing to do with diet or exercise—can also offer a big payoff for your wellbeing. Try incorporating a few of these activities into your routine to benefit from reduced stress levels, lesser risk of certain diseases, lower blood pressure, and much more.
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1. Knitting and crocheting
It might be time to pick up that half-finished crochet project again. Repetitive activities that put your hands to work can help relieve stress by getting you out of your head. Plus, a 2013 survey of 3,500 knitters uncovered a link between knitting and cognitive function: the more people knitted, the better brain function they had.
That warm, fuzzy feeling you get after volunteering at the local soup kitchen or donating to a good cause has tangible health perks. Giving back to others has been linked to lower blood pressure, reduced stress, and even a longer lifespan. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers discovered that people who displayed acts of generosity seemed to be protected against stress. Those who didn’t give back as frequently during the study had a 30% higher risk of dying after a stressful life event.
Generosity also boosts your mood in the short term: A 2007 study found that donating money activates the same pleasure-related centers in the brain as spending it does.
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3. Playing with your pet
Good news for those with furry friends: Caring for a pet has been shown to decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and reduce feelings of loneliness, according to the CDC.
And dog owners might experience additional benefits, since walking your pup is a good form of exercise and can prevent weight gain. According to a 2011 U.S. National Institutes of Health-funded study of 2,000 adults, people who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who did not.
It should come as no surprise that a home-cooked meal is healthier than one you’d get at a restaurant, where dishes are often prepared with lots of salt, butter, and oil. According to a 2014 study, people who regularly eat at home consume about 130 fewer calories daily than those who do not. And teaching children how to cook healthy meals with fresh ingredients has been shown to help curb obesity.
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Growing your own fruits, veggies, and herbs does more than provide fresh bounty for the dinner table. Studies have shown that gardening is better than other leisure activities for fighting stress. It might improve depression symptoms, too, since the sights and smells of a garden promote relaxation.
Research also suggests that gardening can lower your risk of developing dementia. In two different studies, people in their 60s and 70s who regularly gardened had a 36% and 47% lower risk of developing dementia than non-gardeners did.
You shouldn’t discount the physical activity gardening entails, either: According to a 2013 study in the American Journal of Health Promotion, short stretches of moderate “lifestyle” activities such as gardening can be just as beneficial as a trip to the gym.
There’s a reason why meditation has been around for thousands of years. The ancient practice has been linked to a slew of health benefits, including improved digestion, lowered blood pressure, reduced stress-induced inflammation, and the release of mood-boosting chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
Meditation can also help ease pain. In a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers concluded that meditation could alleviate pain intensity by 27% and emotional pain by 44%. Shockingly, that’s more than the opioid morphine, which reduces physical pain by 22%.
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As with knitting, crafty projects such as coloring, drawing, or painting can have powerful mental health benefits. Studies have shown that art therapy can help you relax and ease stress and anxiety. One study published in Western Journal of Medicine concluded that art therapy might help treat depression in troubled adolescents, who can use it as a way to express their feelings. Another study found that creative projects like art therapy, music, and expressive writing could have healing benefits.
Let this be the push you needed to book that trip abroad: Taking time off from work (yes, that means not checking your email) can reduce your risk of heart attack and depression. According to a 2010 study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, engaging in leisure activities such as time off and travel can lower blood pressure and stress hormones.
Planning to visit one of the great wonders of the world? Even better. Recent research suggests that people who regularly experience feelings of awe might have reduced risk of getting heart disease or cancer.