Living: Take up new hobby to stay healthy, alert

Martha Stewart

What’s the best gift to give yourself? A commitment to try something new — from a knitting stitch to a dance move to anything else that excites (and maybe even scares) you. It’s good for your soul and your health.

Lots of people are all too happy to leave speech and debate class behind in high school. But when Julie Chai was 33, knowing she would need to make lots of presentations in her job as an editor, she wished she had some of those skills to fall back on. So she joined a public-speaking group. “During my first prepared speech before everyone, I thought I was going to pass out,” said Chai.

Years later, when she could deliver a speech without a quiver in her voice, she signed up for an improv-theater class. “It was terrifying but exhilarating,” she said. “I’ve always thought that trying new things keeps your brain from turning to mush.”

Mush may be a highly unscientific term, but neurologists and psychologists back up Chai’s suspicion. Trying something new — be it taking up sewing, a foreign-language class or finally learning to swim — is good for you in all kinds of ways. “The brain is stimulated by two things: innovation and motivation. It hates predictability. It shuts down,” said cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Bond Chapman, founder of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of “Make Your Brain Smarter” (Free Press, 2013). “You keep it healthy by continuing to challenge it.”

So consider it a holiday gift to yourself to finally sign up for that Spanish or cooking class.

Quilt your way to a brawnier brain

“When you’re engaged in a new challenge, there’s an increase in brain activity that seems to have a broader effect,” said Denise C. Park, a professor of behavioral and brain sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. In Park’s most recently published study, people ranging from 60 to 90 years old improved their performance on cognitive tests, particularly in measures of short-term memory, after taking a quilting or digital-photography class for three months.

In a 2008 study in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, adults in retirement homes scored better on reading-comprehension and memory tests after taking acting classes. And here’s an endorsement for enrolling in clown college: In a 2009 study of people learning to juggle, scans showed improved connectivity in the brain’s white matter (neurological “wiring”).

The benefits of trying new things may go beyond remembering where you put your keys. More and more researchers think people who continue to challenge their brains can build “a cognitive reserve” — extra mental horsepower that, while it doesn’t prevent Alzheimer’s or dementia, can stave off its effects. “People who are more intellectually engaged are usually older when diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” said Park.

‘Flow’ into bliss

Being engaged in, even consumed by, a new activity — crocheting late into the night, say — can also take you out of the everyday loop of worries in your head and into what psychologists call a “state of flow.” Tina Luster, 51, discovered this when she joined a quilting group while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. “It was a relief to spend hours just caring about how crooked my seam was,” she said.

There’s a link between hobbies and general happiness, too: People who spend more money on leisure experiences than on material possessions reported higher levels of happiness, a 2009 University of Wisconsin study found. “Taking a dance class, learning an instrument — even just getting out of the rut of going to the same restaurant — lets you see a different side of yourself,” said Chapman.

Don’t stop with the daily crossword

To reap all these mental and emotional rewards, though, experts say it’s not enough to master knitting or finish the crossword puzzle each morning. “Once you’re an expert, you’re not using much brainpower — you’re just drawing on knowledge you already have,” said Park. It’s critical to keep pushing your hobby forward — or find a new one. “If you’re an expert bridge player, great,” she said. “Now take up chess.”

Harriet Eichenholz, 69, has the right idea. In the last couple of years, she’s used her semi-retirement (she still works part-time as a chef) to take a watercolor class, keep bees, join two book clubs, become a museum docent and teach herself how to use a circular saw.

Next summer, she has her eye on a paddleboarding class. “I’m having so much fun, I can’t tell you,” she said. “I can’t imagine living long enough to do everything I want to do.”

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