In my book “Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier,” my advice to retirees was to create a portfolio of activities that blended socializing, moving, creating and thinking – building blocks that have been shown to correlate with high scores on standard measures of successful aging and cognitive health. Recently we surveyed Road Scholars – active, engaged people who participate in learning adventures around the world – to find out what hobbies they were most likely to take up in retirement. Here are the Top 12 hobbies or activities for retirement, all rich in two or more of the four key dimensions, that came out on top in our poll. Are any of these activities a big part of your life? What else should we add to the list?
Volunteering Volunteering is good for the soul, highly social and comes in a thousand forms. Road Scholars work in museums where they’re constantly learning something new, in service roles where they help others and become more thankful for what they have, at arts centers where they have (often free) access to performances and many other venues. One survey respondent works in a men’s prison in California counseling inmates on career development, and says he has learned a lot from his students while deepening his commitment to prison reform. Another is a volunteer docent at the National Underground Railway Freedom Center, where she enjoys conveying the important lesson about “how courage, cooperation and perseverance on the part of mostly unsung heroes brought about positive changes.” Another Road Scholar volunteers with a local hospice agency and says the experience “has taught me patience, compassion and appreciation of life in all of its stages.” You can even combine your service with an educational learning adventure on Road Scholar’s Service Learning programs.
Participating in a Book ClubLove to read? Make your reading even more rewarding by joining a book club where you’ll deepen your understanding of both books and people. One Road Scholar belongs to four book clubs and is starting a fifth and writes that she enjoys “the reading and the insights, friendships and other viewpoints that come from club discussions.” Another loves her book club because it “encourages” her to read books she otherwise wouldn’t read and opens doors to new experiences.
Walking/Hiking Walking or hiking comes with fresh air and a quickened pulse, a chance to observe nature and, if you walk with a friend, a dose of the socializing that’s so important to healthy aging. Add that all up, and in a 45-minute walk you’ve helped your brain more than you would by doing a crossword puzzle. One Road Scholar writes that walking takes her back to her childhood: “I grew up in a small town, and, when the weather permitted, we would take long walks on Sunday afternoons. It was always a special time to enjoy the beauties of nature and to greet those we would meet along the way. We returned home refreshed, happy and filled with thanksgiving. Although I am now 82 and live alone, I still walk and inwardly feel the same as I did then. A good way to begin my day.”
Genealogy With abundant Internet resources and the advent of other digital tools, genealogy has perhaps never been more popular, making it one of Road Scholars’ top hobbies for retirement. Genealogical detective work is great exercise for your brain and might even introduce you to distant cousins you otherwise would never have met. One Road Scholar wrote that research she thought would take three months “has taken me on a time-travel trip through history for the last eight years. I am amazed by my ancestors and have found out about their lives and written their stories. It has changed my life and my knowledge about this country and Europe. Some of my Road Scholar trips included areas my ancestors have lived in. It has made the trips come alive with history, and the trips are then so personal and touch me to my core being.”
Photography Would you like to learn to see in a completely new way? The great photographer Alfred Stieglitz wrote that “in photography there is a reality so subtle it becomes more than reality,” and several of the Road Scholars we surveyed made similar observations. One wrote that "photography has enlarged my ‘mental’ eye to see beyond the photo. It’s a constant learning process." Another said that "photography has given me a way to utilize and develop the artistic side of my brain."
Gardening Gardening is good for the body, the brain and the soul. You’ll get exercise and, if you grow vegetables, eat more healthfully. One survey respondent writes that "I am a biologist by training, and the biology of a garden is always a learning experience," while another writes that “communing in nature enhances the spiritual side of my being.”
Birding I can’t add anything to what this Road Scholar writes: “I used to be a fairly strong hiker, but as I got older I started to slow down, not just because I was aging, but because I no longer saw the need to complete a hike in a quick time. I started to notice more and became a birder. Birding is perfect for older individuals – you get outside and walk, you can go by yourself or with a group, you exercise your reflexes in focusing on the bird and your mind in trying to identify the bird. Highly recommended for everyone.” Get outside and smell the roses by noticing the nuthatch!
Foreign Language Study Don’t fall for the trap that learning a foreign language is only a young person’s game. While youth has some advantages, older language learners bring something special to the task, namely, focus and a genuine commitment to learning that children often lack. Still don’t believe me? Listen to this Road Scholar: “I have gone back to school (I am almost 82 years old), and I am earning a bachelor's degree. I am studying Latin and Greek.”
Writing Erik Erikson, the eminent psychologist who carefully mapped the stages of human life, wrote that the seventh stage is marked by conflict between stagnation and generativity. “Generativity” means leaving something of value to future generations, whether by changing the world or by passing on stories and lessons to one’s children and grandchildren. Writing is a great tool for generativity, and many Road Scholars who have written memoirs have jumped into other genres of writing. One writes, “I have written and published a memoir I began as a student in OLLI’s Memoir Writing Class. It was an amazing journey that continues. I have discovered that I have a keen writing style and definitely have stories to tell. I have begun my second book, a novel.” Other survey respondents write poems and raps for special occasions, historical biographies or performance scripts for local historical societies. One wrote that “when I don’t write, I get cranky!”
Singing or Playing a Musical Instrument Another top hobby for retirement, taking music lessons, like studying a foreign language, is something older people often are a little afraid of. But here, too, older people often have a more disciplined approach to practice that young musicians lack. That can be a great advantage and can lead to satisfying progress. One Road Scholar survey respondent wrote that she has “declared music to be the theme of my retirement. I first started with chorus in high school. I sang and played guitar with a church group in mid-life. Later I took voice lessons and performed with a community choral group. Currently I play ukulele about once per week — I found this uke group shortly after I retired, and it is now a very important social group for me.” Another observed that playing music can forestall dementia.
Painting and Drawing Do you want an artistic outlet other than music? Why not try fine arts? One Road Scholar writes that painting “has been inspirational for me. I especially like plein air (outdoor) painting as it combines my love of nature and scenery with the deeply satisfying experience of painting. It becomes a way of both freeing and expanding mind and spirit.”
Bicycling If walking or hiking is too hard on your knees, try bicycling. Several respondents say that bicycling rekindles the feelings of freedom they experienced as children cycling everywhere. One Road Scholar writes that 30 years ago he “joined a Wednesday night ride for anyone in our neighborhood who was interested in participating. I still ride today, both locally and on Road Scholar rides, and am always pleased with the number of friends I have made through this activity.” Another writes that “bicycling provides a social group, good aerobic exercise, helps me maintain physical abilities (balance, strength), helps me stay mentally alert (watching out for motorists) and allows me to experience outdoors and travel to many places.” What more could you ask for?
Which of these top hobbies for retirement do you want to try? Learn a new skill or improve on a hobby you’ve already been taking part in on one of Road Scholar’s learning adventures around the world.
Peter Spiers, Senior Vice President of Strategic Outreach, is the author of “Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier.”
I'd add foraging to the list. I love the idea of walking in nature in search of my next meal!
I recently took up weaving. I love it! My fingers are not as agile as they once were, so crochet is not as easy for me as it used to be, but weaving !! I get to play with my beloved fibers and yarns, creatively plan projects with beautiful colors, textures and techniques, but I can let the loom do most of the heavy lifting. You're never too old to learn.
I would add square dancing. It's a great activity physically, mentally and socially and all the folks we've met are so friendly and helpful.
I knit every day and go on knitting retreats. I bet there are a lot of road scholars who knit too. It's a great hobby and many relatives in cold regions benefit from my winter scarves !!! I love lace knitting too.