Hobbies: The Role of Pastimes in Promoting Health and Reducing Stress Levels

If you’re a member of a church choir, actively engaged in singing the Hallelujah Chorus, you’re unlikely to be worrying about your children’s abysmal record at school. If at the weekend you’re sailing a dinghy through heavy seas, you’ve no time to think about the problem of raising money to finance your coming holiday. Anxiety invariably arises in times of idleness. We have little time to worry if we keep our bodies and minds occupied with healthy pursuits.

Charles Darwin was a chronic worrier, but found that he could escape his problems by playing billiards. To help him unwind he had a table installed in Down House, his delightful home in the Kent countryside, during the year he completed work on The Origin of Species. ‘I find it does me a deal of good’’, he wrote to a friend, ‘and takes the horrid species out of

my head.’ British television personality Hughie Green finds solace by playing with his model railway. ‘I find that after a hard day I can switch on the trains and switch off the worries,’ he reports. Lord Nuffield, the car magnate, relaxed by toying with bits and pieces of machinery. ‘When I can’t sleep at night, I get up and use my hands,’ he said. ‘I have to be fixing something. It gives me release; gets rid of tension.’

Taking part in risk activities is a particularly effective way of dispelling anxieties. The trivial problems of day-to-day living disappear from your mind when you’re making a free fall parachute descent, or shooting the rapids in a raft. At moments like these you’ve got to concentrate on the task in hand. These adrenalin-releasing activities can also produce feelings of euphoria, akin to the ‘high’ that comes from taking psychedelic drugs. According to a study made by Dr Sol Roy Rosenthal, Professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Illinois, 97 per cent of athletes find they get a greater feeling of elation, well-being and physical invigoration when taking part in risk activities such as mountain climbing, skiing, horseback riding and gliding, than when they participate in less dangerous sports such as golf, jogging and callisthenics. This has been the experience of the members of Oxford University’s Dangerous Sports Club, who have travelled the world in search of thrills. During the two years of the club’s existence members have skateboarded in front of the free-running bulls of Pamplona, leapt off the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in hang gliders, and sought to emulate the vine-jumping feats of the natives of New Guinea by jumping off the Clifton Suspension Bridge, poised 250 feet above the Avon Gorge, with only a thin elasticated cord strapped to their backs to save them from certain death. As their leader David Kirk explains, ‘We do these stunts to try and get away from the boredom of plastic, pressurized everyday living. Most people may think we are mad. We think they are insane to endure such humdrum lives. The instant you jump out into thin air from a bridge or mountain is the moment you experience 100 per cent awareness of life. In that moment all the everyday pressures become irrelevant, and it doesn’t matter whether your car needs washing or your mortgage payments are not up to date.’
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( This item first appeared in Fit for Life: The Common-sense Guide to Healthier Living, second hand copies of which can still be bought online from Abe Books and Amazon for just under £5 a copy, a price which includes postage and packing.)

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