This makes total sense: When you're engaged in an activity you truly enjoy, you're happy. And, when you're happy you're not dwelling on all the negative things in life, nor are you stressed about obligations or problems. Certainly this is a good thing from an emotional point of view, but it also has physical benefits.
We know exercise reduces stress, but it turns out that more simple stationary things, like doing puzzles, painting or sewing can help, too.
To find that out, Matthew Zawadzki, an assistant professor of psychology with the University of California, Merced, looked at how the body reacts to leisure activities, defined as anything a person does in his or her free time.
In the study, 115 men and women from different racial groups, ages 20 to 80, were asked to wear little electrodes attached to their chest which measured heart rate throughout the experiment. They were then monitored over the course of three consecutive days, taking surveys at random times throughout the day. The survey questions included what they were doing at that very moment and how they felt about it.
Virtually all the participants reported reduced stress and had a lower heart rate during leisure activities, as compared to parts of the day when they weren't involved in leisure. Leisure could include exercise and socializing, but in many cases it was simple stationary things like listening to music, doing puzzles, sewing, even watching movies or TV. The people said they were 34 percent less stressed, 18 percent less sad and their heart rate dropped, on average, by 3 percent.
The positive benefits of leisure activities even appeared to persist for hours after the activity itself ended.
"We're still talking about the short term, but there was a definite carryover effect later in the day," says Zawadzki, "and 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."
When a person is stressed, "their body is worked up – heart rate, blood pressure, hormones – so the more we can prevent this overworked state, the less of a load it builds up," he says.
You could think of this as a sort of mental escape. When you're totally engaged in and enjoying what you're doing, you don't have time to ruminate and worry. You also don't have time to get bored. And boredom, says Zawadzki, can be dangerous.
"There's something called 'boredom eating'," he says, "where people just binge on junk food as a way to distract themselves. We'll often watch TV passively for hours at a time, rather than actively engage or really think about it. People smoke, drink, do drugs when they're bored."
So the next time you're absorbed in a good book or a good movie, or even just listening to your favorite music, remember you're not only enjoying yourself. You're helping your health.