What would happen if you won the lottery? You would probably quit your job right away, relax and do nothing! You might buy an apartment or invest in a beach house and drink cocktails while basking in the sun. But, after a week you’ll certainly start to notice there’s something missing. What can that be now that you can afford every whim? It’s actually very simple: your brain needs some action!

Of course, you’re probably not a million-dollar lottery winner, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get bored. Sitting on your behind from when you get back from work until you hit the hay is just not natural for humans. So, instead, try active leisure and give your mind what it requires.

The main problem

Most people in western societies have about 5 hours of leisure time every day, more on weekends. But, even though the world is filled with amazing activities and hobbies fit for every person, the main problems is that most people don’t know how to fill their time in a quality way. The most common leisure activity is watching TV. This might seem like a harmless activity, but it can actually leave you with many physical and mental problems. Sitting for a long period of time leads to heart disease and obesity. But, if that’s not bad enough, Reuters reports that unhappy people watch more TV than their happier counterparts. Whether TV causes people to be unhappy or whether unhappy people find escape in TV is unclear, but it’s clear that people who engage in active leisure report overall more life satisfaction.

The solutions

While active leisure comes naturally for some people, others need to make a conscious effort to make better use of their leisure time. For instance, Canadians are experts in this field with many of them regularly engaging in activities like walking, hiking and jogging. These activities will not only keep you fit, but they are also excellent for unwinding and mindful relaxation. Plus, the entire family can enjoy hiking, including kids (it’s especially beneficial for youngsters) and it requires minimal preparation and gear. All you need are some quality hiking sandals and you’re ready to go! So, make sure to schedule your leisure activities every day and you’ll make them a habit for the entire family soon enough. Some conscious effort will definitely pay off.

You can also seek out people with similar interests and allow them to guide you on your adventures. Many people get encouraged by peers and having someone to push you can mean the difference between spending the day with Netflix and spending the day outside with people.

Benefits of active leisure

It’s clear that passive leisure does nothing for your physical well-being, but it can also affect your mental health. For instance, blue light from the screens has a strong effect on sleep. It prevents the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone and can cause irregular sleep patterns and even insomnia. Prolonged sleep deprivation causes mood changes and decreased focus, productivity and alertness. On the other hand, leisurely activities like hiking in nature or engaging in social activities boost mood, improve focus and allow people to be more mindful and present in the moment.

Active leisure is also recommended for people who suffer from depression and anxiety. Physical activity and social contact provide people with a surge of serotonin that improves mood and sparks the feeling of happiness. Plus, these activities fill people with new motivation to continue taking care of their body and mental health. On the other hand, marathon TV watching and similar passive leisure activities worsen the feelings of depression, guilt and loneliness.

Another thing to keep in mind is our brain’s biology. Our brains have 12 nerves called cranial nerves that travel to your our eyes, nose, tongue and other parts in the head. However, one of those nerves called the Vagus nerve is long and it travels all over the body—to your diaphragm and heart, to your gut and back to your brain. Its function is to literally tell your brain whether everything is a-okay or whether something’s wrong. When this nerve gets irritated by doing nothing (sitting too long or just being bored) it sends false alarm signals that spark nervousness. Luckily, if you practice good kinds of leisure, the ones that keep your body and mind engages, your Vagus nerve will send signals that everything is working fine. This will improve your mood as well as your digestion and heart health.

Leisure vs. free time

Don’t mix up your leisure time and your free time. While they might sound similar they are not the same. Free time is those little breaks between tasks and activities where you get the chance to check your emails, grab a snack or take care of a chore. But, your leisure time is when you’re doing absolutely nothing work-related. So, if you can make the best use of your free time, you’ll have more time to dedicate to your leisurely activities and really do something beneficial instead of spending a few hours in front of a TV.

Engaging in active leisure, no matter if it’s working out, hiking, dancing or spending time in conversation, can shape and reshape your brain. It will help everything from your fight with depression and anxiety to your focus and mindfulness. So, limit your time spent in front of a TV, get up and make the best out of your day by filling it with activities that make you happy and healthy.