As the summer months approach, many of us have planned to take vacations and spend more time outside. The benefits of recreation and leisure, however, truly span all seasons. While most people enjoy vacations and such activities as sports, hobbies, and exercise, few realize the full spectrum of benefits linked to regular recreation and leisure activities.
For decades, scholars and researchers around the globe have documented a compelling body of evidence that suggests regular participation in recreation is essential for our physical, social, cognitive, and spiritual development. Recreation improves physical and mental health, builds community, and promotes relationships. Recreation encourages us to take risks, to be creative, and to learn and grow from experience. Overall, people who regularly participate in recreational activities report feeling more productive, less stressed, and a greater sense of satisfaction.
Here are a few suggestions to take advantage of the cognitive benefits of recreation and leisure. The following list is based on empirical research that links leisure activities and environments to brain-related benefits.
Outdoor environments help us experience a sense of connection to the natural world. Feeling such a connection is vital to our sense of well-being and peace of mind. The therapeutic value of parks, open space and wilderness in our environments is thoroughly documented by behavioral scientists across a broad range of disciplines. Human beings often miss the solace and wonder of the natural world denied us by modern and urban lifestyles. The simple act of going outside to think for a moment can bring restoration and clarity to cognitive processes cluttered by the hectic pace and confined nature of modern life.
Bring The Outside In
Bringing outdoor elements into your office and living spaces can help counteract the deficiency of nature there. Houseplants, herb gardens, aquariums, landscape art and windows with a view can make indoor spaces more comfortable, productive, and therapeutic. The use of natural colors, light, textures, images, and patterns help create a more pleasant habitat for recently domesticated human beings who still secretly hunger for more natural surroundings.
Let Yourself Play
Research has shown that children need to play in order to foster their imaginations, learn social norms and develop problem-solving and decision-making skills through trial and error. Play is essential to the social, cognitive, emotional, and physical development of children and youth. While children’s play is characterized by spontaneity, joyfulness, and freedom from inhibition, adults play with increasingly specific rules and regulations. Nevertheless, adults also benefit from the opportunities for self-expression, challenge, and social connections that come from participating in recreation that is spontaneous, interactive, and enjoyable. Some examples of play for adults might include music, painting, theater, games with family and friends — any activity that allows us to change roles and have fun.
Do something daring! Seemingly extreme sports like rock climbing, river rafting, snowboarding, surfing, scuba diving and skydiving are all accessible and beginner-friendly for those willing to pay for expert instruction. Perhaps your idea of excitement might be bungee jumping, mountain biking, boating, hot-air ballooning, or training for a race. Researchers have established a genetic and neurological basis for thrill-seeking behavior and confirmed that the desire for such experiences is hardwired into the brain. Chronic thrill-seekers have a greater need for this type of stimulation, in some cases developing compulsions for adventure similar to drug addiction. While some of us are genetically predisposed to crave excitement more than others, everyone’s brain responds to the dopamine that gets released when our fight-or-flight instinct gets activated. The thrill of adventure pushes the brain into a state of heightened awareness and a feeling of being truly alive. Warning: These activities may be addictive!
Travel can be invigorating and provide insight and perspective. Journeys to unfamiliar places present valuable opportunities to acquire new knowledge and skills. Whether you seek adventure and challenge or rest and relaxation, simply going somewhere different provides an opportunity to inspire, recharge, and refresh emotional and mental states. Because the brain reacts to new settings with increased perception and awareness, the newness of each experience makes travel a stimulating and engaging leisure pursuit.
Rest And Relaxation
Be sure to get enough sleep — and remember to relax from time to time. Your brain needs rest and leisure time of its own which only adequate sleep and relaxation can provide. Cultivate the habit of taking a moment to breathe. Explore the brain-body connection through meditation, yoga, and visualization techniques.
Take Back Your Leisure Time
Free your mind from the digital grid by watching less TV, playing fewer video games, spending less time surfing the web, and turning off your smartphone. While the jury is still out about the long-term effects of digital media and electronic devices on the brain, there is no doubt that these devices represent a huge drain on your leisure time — and reduce the time you have available for more important things. Cut back on digital recreation to make time for more worthwhile leisure pursuits, such as reading and outdoor recreation.
Greg D’Eloia is a professional snowboard instructor and lecturer of recreation and leisure studies at California State University, Long Beach. Dr. Melissa D’Eloia is an associate professor of heath and human development at Western Washington University.
This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.