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Summer Slow-Down: Refresh with Leisure

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Most of us experience some form of slow-down during the summer months. Clients or customers take vacations; regular meeting schedules are put on hold; afterschool schedules of juggling sports, homework, bathing and bedtime are less hectic. A summer slow-down is a wonderful time to re-engage in favorite leisure activities that have been set aside or explore new interests.

Engaging in leisure activities is not only a source of fun and relaxation, it an important component of maintaining your health and wellness. Participating in hobbies, social interactions and other leisure pursuits may lower the risk of developing chronic medical conditions such as dementia, result in improved mental well-being and may add healthier years to your life.

Defining the Scope of Leisure Activities
Leisure activities have been defined as activities that individuals engage in for enjoyment or well-being which are independent of work or activities of daily living. The scope of “leisure activities” is wide. In recent scientific analyses, leisure activities have been categorized as “cognitive” activities (reading, writing, crossword puzzles, board or card games, group discussions or playing music) and “physical” activities (tennis, golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, group exercises, team games, walking, climbing more than two flights of stairs and babysitting).

Leisure Activities and Disease Prevention
Researchers have examined the relationship between leisure activities and the risk of developing chronic conditions like dementia. In one observational study of about 500 individuals who were 75 years of age or older, researchers found that those who spent time reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments and dancing had a reduced risk of developing dementia over the next seven years. In another observational study of almost 2,000 French elders followed for at least three years, those who engaged in activities of knitting, doing odd jobs, gardening and traveling were less likely to develop dementia.

Given the findings of these observational studies, researchers have designed prospective intervention studies in which half the participants are assigned activities like doing crossword puzzles and half are not to see if these interventions improve or preserve cognitive function. In a 2019 review summarizing the findings of 20 intervention studies testing the impact of different kinds of leisure activities (related to arts, writing, board games, reading, handicrafts, crossword puzzles and learning computer skills) on various components of cognitive function in older adults, cognitive function was improved through cognitive leisure activity interventions related to learning new skills in 13 out of 20 studies.

Cognitive Leisure Activities vs. Sedentary Activity
Given that playing board games or doing crossword puzzles are activities done while sitting, how do we reconcile these health benefits with other studies that have shown that prolonged sitting during the day is bad for your health?

Different types of sedentary behavior may have different effects on overall health or on the risk of developing specific chronic diseases, like dementia. For example, in a study of almost 1,700 older adults followed in the National Health and Aging Trends Study, researchers looked at the impact of six sedentary behaviors (television watching, sitting and talking, hobbies, computer use, driving and resting) on health status. Television watching and resting, but not other behaviors, were associated with poorer health.

In terms of the impact of being sedentary (sitting) on brain health, the key factor may be whether or not your brain is active or sedentary while your body is at rest. Researchers from University College London followed more than 3,600 people over the age of 50 for an average of six years monitoring both the amount of TV they watched and their performance on memory tests during this time period. Those participants who watched three and a half hours or more of TV per day also had a reduction in memory testing of 8 to 10% compared to a decline of 4-5% in those who watched less TV per day (thus doubled their decline in memory).

In contrast to this adverse impact of TV watching on memory (one component of cognitive function), other leisure activities like playing a musical instrument or doing puzzles (many done while sitting) may improve cognitive function or inhibit cognitive decline.

Improved Mental Well-Being
Studies have also shown that participation in leisure time activity can also result in improved mental well-being and subjective health. These benefits were nicely demonstrated in a small study of women in a local quilting group in which participants learned new skills and formed strong friendships; quilts were often given altruistically, giving this leisure activity added purpose.

Finding Time for Fun
If you are like most people, your time available for these kinds of healthy leisure activities may be limited by work demands or family responsibilities.

Analysis of information collected in 2018 from the American Time Use Survey conducted by the US Department of Labor show that on an average day, a minority of men and women engage in health enhancing leisure time activities: 

• 22% of men and 18% of women participated in sports, exercise or recreation

• 16% of men and 19% of women participated in reading for personal interest

• 12% of men and 10% of women participated in playing games

• 11% of men and 17% of women participated in volunteering or spiritual activities

That being said, this same analysis showed that almost 80% of adult men and women watch television and the average time of television viewing is almost four hours per day!

Take advantage of your summer slow-down to read a book, play a board game or learn a new skill. If your summer never slows down, then simply turn off the TV to gain time for health-boosting leisure activities. By participating, you may just improve your chances of living longer and enhancing your quality of life. Who knew disease prevention could be so fun?

Article provided by Nina B. Radford, MD, Cooper Clinic cardiologist and Director of Clinical Research