For most of us, our hobbies are an essential component of our personal lives, but did you know they can be good for our mental and physical health too?
Hobbies provide a fulfilling, productive use of our free time, and our core identities are often bound up in the interests we choose to pursue when we are not working, sleeping, or spending time with loved ones.
Of course, most of us take up a hobby because we enjoy it. But, as you're about to find out, there might be much more to your pastime than the fun factor.
We take a look at five hobbies that could give you a health boost for 2018.
Dancing: A fun form of exercise
Dancing has a whole range of health benefits and it is an easy and accessible way to exercise for most people. Think about it: you don't need a lot of equipment to dance – just your feet, some tunes, and preferably a friend or two.
Dancing is gentle on the body – you can push yourself as hard as you want or settle into a comfortable groove that is just right for you. And anyone can dance!
Even if you are shy of cutting loose on the dancefloor, pretty much everyone enjoys moving their body to music, even if it is just within the comfort of their own home; there is no right or wrong way to dance. Just do whatever feels good to you!
Dancing is a social activity, and we know that keeping active socially is important for general well-being Most importantly, dancing is fun. This is a pain-free, energizing workout. But how, specifically, does dancing keep us healthy?
Firstly, dancing is an excellent cardio workout, and we know that cardio workouts help to improve cardiovascular health, increase stamina, and strengthen bones and muscles.
A 2011 Cochrane Review that examined 94 studies involving 9,917 participants also found that dancing at least three times per week seemed to improve balance in the elderly.
This is important because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that every year 2.8 million older people are treated in emergency departments for fall injuries.
Rates of unintentional fall deaths among adults are also becoming more common. The CDC say that between 2005 and 2014, unintentional fall death rates rose from 43,000 per 100,000 people to 58,000 per 100,000 people.
So, if an activity as simple as dancing could help to avoid some of these unintentional falls, then why not boogie away?
Gardening good for the brain
Gardening may not initially seem like exercise, but studies have reported that a wealth of unexpected health benefits are associated with keeping your garden in order.
Firstly, the simple actions of pulling weeds, planting, and reaching for tools all contribute to a subtle form of aerobic exercise, which we know helps work muscles and boosts strength, stamina, and flexibility.
And there is an association between decreased dementia risk and gardening, with one study reporting a 36 percent lower risk of dementia among people who gardened daily.
Writing: A wonder for wound healing
Surely sitting at a desk with a laptop or pen and paper cannot be good for your health? Prepare to be shocked.
Writing has been linked to a number of mental and physical health benefits, including improvements in memory, stress levels, and sleep, among other things.
Several studies, for instance, have found that writing about their experiences helps cancer patients to come to terms with their illnesses, helping the patients to withstand stress and potentially contribute to improved physical outcomes.
One intriguing study conducted by researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand even investigated whether writing may affect the speed at which wounds heal.
The researchers assigned one group of participants to write for 20 minutes a day about their most traumatic life experience, and assigned another group that task of writing for the same duration each day about their plans for the next day.
Two weeks after the first day of writing, small skin biopsies were taken from the participants. The researchers then photographed the resulting wounds every 3–5 days until they were healed.
They found that 11 days after the biopsy, 76 percent of the wounds in the group of participants writing about trauma had healed, while in the group of participants writing about their daily plans, only 42 percent of wounds had healed.
Overall, writing is a great tool for self-expression, and while journaling about trauma can be cathartic, there are also possible social benefits in writing for a public audience. Blogging, for instance, can help people to forge new relationships and build communities around their interests.
Music is medicine
Playing and listening to music can also benefit both mental and physical health. In 2013, Medical News Today reported on the first large-scale review of research papers studying music's influence on neurochemistry.
Among patients awaiting surgery, listening to music was found to be more effective at decreasing anxiety than prescription drugs, and listening to and playing music was linked to lower levels of the "stress hormone" cortisol.
To get some idea of how much music excites our brains, a 2011 study also compared the brain's response to music with its reactions to food and sex, as the pleasurable feelings derived from all three are driven by release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Pets: Good for the heart
Pets of all types can make wonderful companions, and they can help us to be more healthy in many ways.
According to the CDC, owning a pet may not only provides opportunities for exercise, outdoor activities and socialization, it can also help decrease your:
If you are wondering how this translates into wider health benefits, it is worth bearing in mind that all of these factors can help to minimize the risk of having a heart attack.
However, a 2013 study questioned whether the association between pet ownership itself is directly linked to the lowered risk of heart disease among pet owners that had been reported in previous studies.
"Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with a decreased risk of heart disease," said study author Glenn N. Levine. "It may be simply that healthier people are the ones that have pets, not that having a pet actually leads to or causes reductions in cardiovascular risk."
If you have a regular hobby that you enjoy, why not spend some time thinking about how you might be able to apply your hobby-related activities to improving your health?
And if you are thinking of taking up a new hobby, then we hope this article has given you some ideas on how to be more healthy while having fun!