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Leisure and Health

We work too much. It may be good for our wealth but not for our health.

By taking my first long vacation in 30 years I hope to start a leisure trend. Just yesterday I returned from a two week trek high in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California.

Many of us have long suspected that we need more time to unwind. And now, thanks to a new study, we know.

Americans typically have a longer work week than people in almost every other country. And we have growing epidemics of obesity and of diabetes.

Are the long work week and the epidemics connected? The correlation of these two things doesn’t prove that one causes the other. But a study of 1,400 American adults that will be coming out in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine shows that the more time we spend in different leisure activities the lower our blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index, and cortisol measurements. These are all markers of good health.

The study, “Association of Enjoyable Leisure Activities With Psychological and Physical Well-Being,” is online ahead of print. The abstract is free, and the journal kindly sent me the full text of the study.

The people in the study reported how often they participated in their leisure activities. This included spending time unwinding, visiting friends or family, going on vacation, going to clubs or religious activities, or playing sports.

People who took more leisure time also reported stronger and more diverse social networks, more feelings of satisfaction and engagement in their lives, and lower levels of depression. They also slept better and exercised more consistently.

Earlier studies examined the link between specific activities, such as exercise, and improved physical and psychological health. But this is the first study to show that the total package of enjoyable activity benefits our health.

It seems counterintuitive. “When one is under stress, the usual thing is to cut back on enjoyable activities, because you’re feeling uncomfortable and you need more time to deal with the stress,” says study co-author Karen Matthews, Ph.D. She is a professor of psychiatry, epidemiology, and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “But these data suggest that is the wrong thing to do and that continuing enjoyable activities you do can be helpful.”

My vacation started to end at 7 a.m. yesterday morning when we departed from the Yosemite Wilderness, the primitive area of Yosemite National Park, arriving at the trailhead in the early afternoon. I had hiked 132 miles since we set off on August 3 through the Emigrant, Hoover, and Yosemite Wilderness areas.

We were three members of the Sierra Club from around the country, including a woman from Vermont, a man from California, and myself from Colorado. A Sierra Club leader, an assistant leader, and a wrangler on horseback with five mules for our gear accompanied us.

I celebrated my 74th birthday on August 5 at our Emigrant Lake camp. While I was the oldest and the only member of the party to have diabetes, all of the other hikers also have health problems and physical limitations. Each of us qualified as senior citizens. One of us was a woman, supposedly the weaker sex, but in fact often the fastest hiker.

Except for very few people, I think that our party proved that getting a lot of healthy exercise is an option for all of us. And now the new study shows just how healthy it is to get away from our work.

This article originally appeared on healthcentral.com on 17-Aug-2009

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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