How leisure activities are the ticket to less stress and better health

The stresses of everyday life build up and can be detrimental to our health and sleep – and not just during the holidays. More easy-access resources are needed to help people cope, according to two health psychologists, who have shown that tapping into leisure activities can be a powerful tool to manage everyday stress.

Listen to the Marcellus Merritt on Curious Campus, UWM’s podcast about science, discovery and culture.

They are trying to figure out exactly why leisure activities are health-protective and are searching for ways to enhance their effects.

Marcellus Merritt, an associate professor in UWM’s College of Letters & Science, and Matthew Zawadzki, an associate professor at the University of California-Merced, offer some tips in this Q&A. To hear more, check out this week’s episode of Curious Campus, UWM’s podcast about science, discovery and culture.

When can stress harm our health?

Merritt: Stress is endemic in our lives – and there’s a “good” and a “bad” variety. Our bodies can handle random stresses. But if we have it constantly, that’s when it can grow and become chronic. So, our goal is to develop preventive models to help people optimize the good stressors and minimize the bad stress.

Marcellus Merritt

So we can’t avoid stress altogether. How can we manage it better?

Merritt: One of the things Matthew and I are focusing on this notion of leisure as an inherent model of stress reduction. The idea is, “Why don’t we focus on what we already like to do and figure out ways to help you do that better?” So, if you like to golf for leisure, figure out why golf helps you feel better and build solutions around that approach. Is it because you become absorbed and forget your problems? Is it because it gets you engaged in social interaction so you get “out of your head?”

Tell us a little about the study.

Zawadzki: We went outside of the lab and tracked people in their everyday lives to find out what they are doing and feeling in the moment. And we follow them along in a couple of ways. The first is they have a wearable on – sometimes it’s a watch and sometimes it’s a little electrode on the chest. This gives us in depth information on things like heart rate or how active are you at a certain time. Then we also have these apps we put on people’s phones that put out a push notification every so often for a quick assessment. We ask them questions like what they are doing. Are you engaging in leisure? Are you working? How stressed do you feel?

Matthew Zawadzki

Did those point to any correlations?

Zawadzki: It was really shocking how big of an effect it showed. People reported themselves as 10% happier in all the moments when they’re doing leisure and 30% less stressed. One of the things that really stood out was when we looked at their heart rate data, which came in 4% lower when engaged in leisure. That may not sound like a lot, but the effect was long-term. It lasted for 30 minutes to two hours.

What makes leisure therapeutic?

Merritt: It’s related to this notion of being absorbed. We’re finding evidence that people who are more distracted when they do their leisure choice, report sleeping better and have fewer depressive symptoms.

It also depends on the individual and their particular engagement with a leisure activity. Playing golf may put you in a better mood, whereas for me, the challenge is exhilarating, and for a third person playing golf just may be more of a social activity on a Saturday afternoon.

We all know that exercise helps to reduce stress, but can a sedentary pastime, like reading, also work?

Zawadzki: We’ve come to that conclusion that any activity could be beneficial, but it depends on how you’re doing that activity. Exercise isn’t the only way. When I was growing up my mom had her own ritual each night. She took a bubble bath at 9 p.m. sharp. So even though it was a sedentary activity, she relaxed and allowed herself to let go of the worries, even for 30 minutes.

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