Last updated: May 11, 2008
Renee Restivo of Bayonne, N.J., was heading toward the corner office in a high-powered advertising career on Madison Avenue. "It was a lot of stress and responsibility," she recalls. Despite her crazy schedule, Restivo snuck in a cooking course on Saturdays. "It was my one little piece of happiness," she says. "Even if the other six days were stressful, I could get inspired that one day of my week."


She found the time because she considered it an investment in discovering herself. "It's a matter of priorities," she says. "If I hadn't dedicated a tiny bit of time to my hobby, I never would have known how passionate I was about cooking." Restivo eventually quit her job, got a master's degree in writing, and made cooking a bigger part of her life, including a blog she writes about authentic sensual food.

Like Restivo, most of us are hard-pressed to squeeze five min­utes of leisure time out of the day, let alone the ongoing blocks of time needed to sustain a hobby.

"Many women feel guilty taking time for themselves, but for happiness and good health, you need an inspiring purpose," says Andrea Pennington, an integrative medicine physician and wellness coach. "A good hobby makes you lose all sense of time and self, liberating you from the every­day." In fact, research shows that a hobby can help you cope with work-related stress by providing a different kind of challenge and letting you disen­gage—and so recuperate—from work.

Convinced? Here's how to find the hobby that's right for you.

If you telecommute or live alone: Join a club
Consider something that gets you out of the house and around other like-minded people. Not only will you have fun when you join a cooking club, bowling league, or hiking club, but you'll reap the benefits of friendship and camaraderie. "It's easy to become stagnated after a long day or evening alone. Inertia takes over," Pennington says. "But research has shown that maintaining social connections can positively affect your health."

Elizabeth Cavallaro, a pediatrics resident at the University of Arizona in Tucson, works long hours at the hospital. Because she's single and lives alone, Cavallaro joined the Ramblers, a university-associated hiking club, to meet people, exercise, and socialize. "I wanted to get the most out of my free time," she says. "Residents tend not to take care of their bodies, so I love how hiking makes me feel physically healthy and in shape. It's a nice mental break from the rush and stress of the hospital, and I've become good friends with some of the club members. We even get together outside the club for movie nights, potlucks, and tennis lessons."


If you're at home all day: Write it down
You may be exhausted from chasing a 2-year-old around since dawn, and your dream of hitting the gym died hours ago along with the nap fantasy. So how about a little mental stimulation? Nestle into the easy chair with a sudoku puzzle or with a fresh pad of paper to write that novel you've been thinking about.

Studies show that lifelong learning is a great way to stay smart. "If you don't use it, you'll lose it," Pennington says. "Mentally challenging activities keep your mind sharp, even if you feel like your mommy brain is mush."

Christina Kosofsky, a stay-at-home mom of two daughters in Redwood City, Calif., likes to sit down with a crossword puzzle while the kids are napping or in bed at night. "I used to work at a hospital, and I'd do puzzles on my breaks," she says. "It was always a stress-buster for me."

At first, Kosofsky felt guilty about taking time to do puzzles, but she noticed how much more refreshed and ready to tackle mundane chores she was afterward. Plus, she likes the con­trast to dealing with kid stuff all day. "It's nice to know my brain still works for more than figuring out Blue's Clues," she says.

If life is one demand after another: Get crafty
A crafty hobby that allows you to escape, relax, and use your hands may be your ticket to stress relief. "Focusing on a task-oriented craft helps channel your attention in one direction. Someone with lots of demands can feel like she has attention deficit disorder, but a craft can fuel a sense of accomplishment and calm," Pennington says.

With three kids and a full-time job as an office manager and paralegal in St. Paul, Minn., Kelly Linse-Hemmelman is a veteran of the prover­bial full plate. When she was invited to a scrapbooking party, "I was afraid I'd feel guilty about taking time away from my children," she admits. "But then I thought, ‘My husband plays in a band, the kids do their things, and where am I in all this?'"

She went to the party and caught the bug. "I deal with very concrete facts at work, where everything is black and white. Scrapbooking brings out my creative side," she says.

Through scrapbooking, Linse-Hemmelman found a part of herself she didn't even know existed. "You can lose yourself in a career and in your kids. It's hard to believe that happens when you're so proud of your children and what you've accom­plished at work, but it does," she says. "I told a friend when she had a baby not to lose herself, and I'm finally taking my own advice."


If your job is sedentary: Get physical
Swimming, bicycling, or even outdoor hockey in the cul-de-sac are great for upping your heart rate and your energy level. "Many studies show the importance of exercise, particularly if you have a desk job," says Nancy Molitor, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University. "But physical activity also improves mood and well-being. The effects of exercise can be as good as an antidepressant."

Anita Perkins of Vancouver, Can­ada, spent long hours working on the computer as a partner in a mechanical engineering firm in Seattle. "I felt so out of balance," she recalls. When she took ballroom-dancing lessons for her wedding in 1999, she was immediately hooked. "I was working crazy hours, but I planned my day around dancing," she says. "I would sit at my desk, and the only thing I looked forward to was dancing for an hour or two."

Perkins found dancing got her into shape without her even realizing it, and she felt great after expending so much physical energy. "My brain is always going, and I used to lie in bed thinking about all the stuff I had to do. Dancing helps me turn off those grinding gears to focus on the music, my partner, and our moves. When I go home, I'm truly relaxed."

If you want family time: Work together
Try a group activity—whether it's camping, gardening, or hunkering down over a puzzle—that allows you to pursue your passion together.

"Even when we think we're interacting with our children, we're probably not," Molitor says. "Most weekday conversations are utilitarian: ‘Did you have lunch?' and ‘Did you do your homework?' And vacations once a year just don't cut it. A consistency of connection is vital."

As a mother of three and founder of a company that promotes healthier, greener, more balanced living, C.J. Kettler knows firsthand how working moms tend to divide life into family time and work time. A few years ago, she rediscovered yoga (a for­gotten college passion) and began training to be a teacher. She invited her daughters to join her yoga classes and has found that practicing yoga with them gives her the best of both worlds.

"Yoga lets me have time to myself and to share it," Kettler explains. "I'm lucky that we found an activity we can do together that makes the most of family time and yet finds a balance between everyone's interests."