Hidden benefits of recreation: Hobbies can provide physical therapy, stress relief, mindfulness

By Ms. Suzanne Ovel (Army Medicine)August 19, 2013

Recreation therapy
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Recreation therapy
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When Ronnie Bernardo steps into the kitchen, she immerses herself in the art of cooking, in focusing on the people she is feeding, and in all the senses that putting culinary creations together engages her in.

"The feeling is like all of your senses are alive -- you put the colors in there, the texture, just everything," said Bernardo, a sergeant with Charlie Company. "It's art; cooking is an art, and when you present it, it's something beautiful."

Although Bernardo, who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in March, plans to go into the restaurant business as a career, she also finds that the act of cooking itself relieves stress and anxiety.

"It's very calming; you use all of your senses when you're cooking," said Bernardo, who was injured in a field exercise and now experiences chronic pain. "When I start to cook, I don't really feel the stress; I don't really feel a lot of pain either."

Engaging in recreational activities can provide Soldiers with enjoyable pastimes that improve their quality of life as well as an alternate form of therapy, according to Erin Carpenter, a recreation therapist at the Warrior Transition Battalion.

"It's based on the idea that recreation and enjoyment are part of what makes you function and happy as a person," said Carpenter, who said recreation therapy can range from arts and music to sports and fitness.

She said that while hobbies like archery or playing guitar may lift Soldiers' spirits, they can also reap therapeutic benefits. Learning patterns in music can help with memory and dexterity, and focusing on breathing when shooting engages the same muscles used when controlling breathing to reduce anxiety.

Leisure activities like cooking, archery and music can contribute to the two tiers of recreation therapy: using recreation as a tool to achieve therapeutic outcomes (such as improved memory), and helping people to achieve fulfillment despite any physical limitations they may have (engaging in a sport that doesn't require running, for example).

Soldiers can get help engaging in recreational activities like fishing by asking recreation therapists to help them find easier venues from which to fish (locations with dock fishing or easier access to boat docks) or to help find adaptive reels and lures if needed. Therapists can help devise adaptive measures for a variety of recreational activities, such as gardening (put in raised beds or hanging plants), kayaking (use adaptive seats and padding), and art (use brushes with adaptive grips).

Recreational activities also provide the opportunity to be mindful and focus on one thing at a time. Mindfulness helps people decrease anxiety, lower their heart rates, and gain focus and control, said Carpenter.

"Even if you're just particularly stressed out that one day, engaging in just one activity and focusing on that is a wonderful tool to re-center yourself and refocus," she said.

In addition to mindfulness, recreation can also help Soldiers socially reengage.

"I have personally seen Soldiers go from (being) reclusive to a social butterfly," said Kim Drown, another recreation therapist here.

Addressing multiple areas of one's recovery is another key benefit of recreation therapy.

"There's a big aspect of mental health and mental well-being in recreation therapy. It's not about just getting physically well, it's about getting emotionally well and spiritually well. It's meant to be a holistic approach to healthcare," said Carpenter.

In fact, Bernardo said that cooking for her is "almost spiritual." She also uses cooking as a means to connect with other people, to focus on who she's feeding and nourishing, and to focus on joy.

And that joy is the key to how recreational therapy can help people heal faster, said Carpenter.

"When you're doing something that you enjoy, you could approach it with so much more positivity, so much more optimism, and we know that positivity and optimism lead to faster healing," she said. "If you're engaging in recreation, then you're on your way to healing."