Mental and Physical Wellbeing
Five activities that can protect your mental
and physical health as you age
A No one is
immune to developing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer or
arthritis as they get older. But research shows social activities, like
joining clubs, interest groups or volunteering, are linked to better
mental and physical health and a longer lifespan. Our own recent research
found that the more that people participated in social activities,
the less risk they had of developing or accumulating chronic conditions. We
looked at people aged 50 and older from 12 European countries over a five year
period and studied how volunteering, education, joining a club or being
involved in religious or political groups impacted their likelihood of
developing major chronic illnesses.
We found that weekly participation in social
activities reduced the risk of developing a chronic condition by 8% compared to
no participation, and reduced the risk of developing two or more chronic
conditions by 22%. Even if you’re busy, our findings suggest that just a few
hours spent on a social activity every week can protect your health. Not only
are social activities important for keeping physically active, engaging in
activities with other people is shown to benefit your mental wellbeing,
which in turn further protects your physical health. With that in mind, there’s
a wealth of research that shows doing just one of these five activities
regularly will provide benefits.
B Taking time to
be inspired by new things is good for our health. Studies show that people who
read books live longer, and bilingual people have better cognitive
health. Pursuing new knowledge or learning new skills is known to promote wellbeing and memory function. Activities like attending an art or music class
are associated with enhanced brain health, as they improve the communication
between different brain regions. They can also improve psychological
resilience, meaning that they can improve people’s ability to cope better and
persevere through stressful or challenging situations.
People who have made a habit of learning
throughout their lifetime generally have better physical and mental
health, including reduced risk for heart diseases and obesity, healthier habits
(such as good nutrition, exercise, and not smoking), better wellbeing and
cognition, and a stronger sense of purpose in life.
C Research shows
joining a handball or football team has multiple health
benefits, such as lower blood pressure, better heart rate, lower fat mass and
musculoskeletal fitness. People are also more motivated and have better
wellbeing. Even less common activities like rock climbing reportedly
ward off symptoms of depression, while hiking is shown to promote
emotional health, creativity, a sharp mind and healthier relationships. This
might be because living in the moment can be a healthy distraction from
stress and worries. Physical activity might let someone experience “flow”, the
state of being completely absorbed, focused and involved in something. During
flow, people typically report deep enjoyment, creativity and happiness.
Even non-exercise group pastimes are beneficial.
Mentally stimulating activities, such as card and board games, videogames, needlework or crafts,
have been shown to improve and sustain good mental and cognitive health. Joining
a choir not only protects physical and mental health, enhances
wellbeing and reduces loneliness, it also promotes lung health and
reduces anxiety as a result of controlled breathing practices. Group
activities such as singing, knitting, painting, playing board games or
playing football have also been shown to increase social belonging and
help people bond.
D The old saying
that it’s better to give than to receive might be true. Research shows
that spending time volunteering is associated with enhanced mental
health, higher physical activity, fewer functional limitations and lower risk
We have previously shown that weekly volunteers
are twice as likely to have optimal mental health compared to
non-volunteers. Other researchers have reported similar links to acts
of kindness in general. Volunteering can benefit mental health by providing
a sense of meaning and purpose, improving competence, self-esteem,
solidarity and compassion, as well as opportunities to connect with others.
E Being able
to contribute to one’s community is also key to mental health. This
is because humans have an intrinsic need to both be connected with a community
and have a role to play in it. One way to do that is through political or civic
Community engagement is generally associated with
better physical and mental health and wellbeing, and some research even
shows civic involvement at age 33 is protective against cognitive
impairment at age 50. This means that being active in a civic group is linked
to sustained cognitive health over 15 years.
F A large
volume of research shows that religion and spirituality are, in general, beneficial to mental health. These mental health benefits positively impact
physical health and decrease the risk of disease by improving immune function
and lowering the stress response.
When becoming ill, many use their religious beliefs to
cope with illness, which is important since poor coping skills can lengthen
hospital stays and increase patient mortality. Accordingly, some evidence
suggests that religious people tend to have better recovery when ill or
having undergone surgery. Also, attending religious services is associated
with long life and better brain health, as well as increased resilience against
depression even for high-risk people.
No matter what activity you choose, all of them have
three behavioural principles in common that we have written about before,
known as Act-Belong-Commit. Getting active, getting social, and getting
involved can help you maintain good mental and physical health in general and
as you age.
Source: The Conversation. Authors: Ziggi Ivan Santini, Paul E. Jose & Vibeke Jenny Koushede