Keeping Stress in Check: Using Leisure Time to Lighten Up

“I have never known any distress that an hour’s reading did not relieve.”― Montesquieu

In our purportedly chaotic and frenzied world, minimizing stress in our lives has become somewhat of an obsession, matched only in intensity perhaps by our endless pursuit of lifelong youth. We exercise, prioritize, make lists, breathe… We meditate, play bocce ball, basketball, breathe… We party, play, get away, breathe… But what activities actually have an impact on keeping us calm and at the same time successfully productive in life?

In a prior post, I discussed the notion of Making Peace with Stress: the idea that we do need some amount of stress in our lives to keep us at our peak performance. There is a healthy amount of stress and an unhealthy amount.  Our quest should be to find the balance somewhere in the middle.

Although routine exercise has long been touted as a great reducer of stress and promoter of general health and wellbeing, it turns out that other more “mellow” leisure activities also show benefits in terms of reducing symptoms that are typically linked to stress.

In a recent study conducted by Matthew Zawadski out of University of California, participants reported reduced stress, less sadness, and demonstrated lower heart rates when involved in leisure activities despite whether these actions were exercise based or more mellow in nature. In addition to the immediate results, there was also a beneficial carryover effect noted later in the day. Even though Zawadski indicated these are still short term measurable outcomes, “…if we start thinking about that beneficial carryover effect day after day, year after year, it starts to make sense how leisure can help improve health in the long term.”

Want to de-stress, but not sure how to chill? Pastimes that you enjoy immensely or that easily keep your interest for a period of time seem to be most effective. You know those activities that you become engrossed in and all of sudden an hour’s gone by? Yes, those. And of course it’s always ok to try something new! Here are some suggestions:

Read: Curl up with a good book that you can’t wait to read. Make time for this each day, even if just 15 minutes.

Watch a movie or TV: Pick something intentional that sustains your attention, not just reruns of a 90’s show that happens to be on when you turn on the tube.

Paint, draw, color! You don’t have to be an artist. The simple task of coloring has gained a lot recent media attention as a great stress reliever for adults and children alike.

Play games: If you are highly competitive by nature, taking on your arch enemy in a 12-hour Monopoly marathon may not do the trick, but a friendly game of horseshoes or quiet hour of solitaire may do your soul some good.

Bake or cook: I’ll admit cooking a whole meal does not calm me personally; however, a good afternoon spent baking dozens of my favorite cookies is sometimes just what the doctor ordered.

Play a musical instrument: Whether you have this talent or want to learn, making music often does wonders for your mind and body.

Take a stroll: This is different than the walk to conquer the last 2,000 steps for the day on your Fitbit. Walk in a place you love. Take time to notice your surroundings. Stop and smell the flowers.

It is a well-known fact that routine exercise has substantial health benefits aside from just stress reduction, so please don’t take this as a prescription to replace all of your treadmill time with checkers. However, a good mix of both active and more subdued activities, may be just the right recipe for keeping your stress in check.

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