How My New Golf Hobby Made Me Healthier in Unexpected Ways

April 5, 2024 – For decades, I resisted invitations to try, learn, and play golf. Too frustrating, I said. Too expensive. Too much to learn. Too time-consuming. 

I too-too-too’d myself out of giving it a shot.

A lifelong hobby dabbler, I finally decided to give golf a whirl last summer. 

I bought cheap clubs and took a few lessons. I went to the driving range and slugged around for nine or 18 holes every few weeks. I logged bad scores but hit just enough so-satisfying shots that I fell in love-hate with the sport.

It felt right.

Then something unexpected happened. Without trying, I started improving in other areas of my life. I didn’t miss a workout. I went from walking 9,000-11,000 steps a day to regularly more than 14,000 (even on non-golf days). I drank less. I – stop the presses – asked for doggie bags when I ate out.

I never would have believed that golf had anything to do with these subtle but important changes, but maybe it did. 

Psychologists call this the spillover effect – the notion that one healthy behavior leads to others, often effortlessly. Many people who start exercising regularly, for example, naturally begin to eat healthier. 

In some ways, it could be one of the most important concepts in behavior change – the less we have to work to make changes, the more automatic being healthy can be.

“It’s likely more efficient – for exercise, eating, alcohol – when we can shift from one behavior, people start to improve their confidence and start other behaviors,” said psychologist María Marentes-Castillo, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Valencia in Spain who has studied the spillover effect.

Research shows this effect is largely controlled by systems in our brain that influence competence (how well we do) and confidence (our belief that we can do it).

The stage of change influences how well we can latch onto other behaviors. Later stages of the change process – taking an action or maintaining that action – can have higher spillover success than earlier stages when people are still thinking about or preparing for change.

Of course, you can take out the word “golf” and sub in any other new interest – gardening, surfing, yoga, chess – to see the bigger point. Improving in one area of your life can help you improve in others – if you can stick with it and not be totally derailed by the inevitable bad shots.  

Here are some strategies to help you do just that. 

Expand Your Definition of Mindfulness 

On the golf course is one of the very few times that I put away my phone and don’t feel the urge to check it. I attributed that to mindfulness – being focused on the present moment of the game – but I didn’t understand the whole story.

“The definition [of mindfulness] has been diluted. We think it’s about being present, but it’s much more nuanced than that,” said Shauna Shapiro, PhD, a professor at Santa Clara University in California and author of Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness & Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire Your Brain for Calm, Clarity and Joy. “Specifically, it’s also about how and why you’re paying attention, not that you’re just doing it.”

I know why I’m doing it: To spend more time with my adult sons who play and to find something that engages me in a different way than my fulfilling work life.

But the how? The how, Shapiro said, involves kindness.

“As people start paying attention with kindness, they start to take care of themselves better,” she said. “That’s one of the superpowers of mindfulness: Your choice.”

I can see how that applies to golf or any attempt at change: Don’t crush your own soul after a bad shot or a blown diet or a missed workout; understand that setbacks are part of the process. Mindfulness can help with that.

“The word mindfulness means to see clearly. When we see clearly, we can respond wisely and effectively,” Shapiro said. “When you shame and judge yourself, it shuts down the learning centers of the brain.”

Being kind to yourself, on the other hand, releases oxytocin – the hormone of safety and connection, she said. And it releases dopamine, the neuromodulator of learning and motivation.

“When you make a mistake, it’s the perfect moment to learn,” Shapiro said. “Instead of giving up, you go forward.” 

Believe in the Why as Well as the What

While you might think that grinding it out is the crucial element for growth, a study of nearly 1,000 adolescents published this year in the journal Sports showed that having interest and perseverance – that is, the “grit” personality – isn’t enough for healthy behavior change. It’s the self-perception that you’re effective at doing so that’s key. 

The vital trait here: Confidence. 

I get that. Granted, I spend more time looking for balls in water/woods/backyards than I do actually swinging. But I’ve hit enough good shots that immediately deliver a dopamine IV to keep me coming back.

One reason why confidence is crucial, Marentes-Castillo said, is because it taps into internal/intrinsic motivation – when you’re motivated by internal drive rather than external goals. People who rationalize unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones (I’ll eat 14 pizzas because I did two sets of biceps curls) are less motivated by intrinsic reasons – and thus less likely to have the positive spillover effect.

The trick, she said, is to not just focus on the outcomes and everyday successes and failures, but to really tap into the bigger-picture motivations. Being in tune with how you feel about what you’re doing when you make changes – and not just the fact that you’re doing it – can help you adjust other areas. 

Trust the Effect of Unintended Consequences 

There’s no doubt that playing golf influences my mind and body for other reasons too, and similar effects would happen with any healthy hobby. So, if you’re looking for health changes, maybe you don’t have to start with a difficult diet or exercise program – but by finding something that feels right to you. After all, just engaging in a hobby has positive health effects.

Hobbies can activate different pathways that improve health, said Karen Mak, PhD, a senior research fellow in the Department of Behavioral Science and Health at University College London. Many of them deal with mental health, social systems, and purpose. 

The more we engage in hobbies in terms of engaging in a variety of leisure activities and a higher frequency of engagement, the more we are exposed to active ingredients that are known to benefit our health and well-being,” she said. 

Research has shown that hobbies can benefit us by providing distraction, novelty, mental stimulation, creativity, and relaxation, said Ciara McCabe, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. Hobbies specifically also provide sensual engagement, self-expression, creativity, and relaxation.

And that’s not even mentioning the benefits specific to your activity. For me:

  • Golf gets me outside more. One study of 20,000 people found that spending at least 2 hours a week in green spaces was linked to good health.
  • Golf appears to help the heart, blood vessels, muscles, and bones, according a review of more than 20 studies.
  • Walking has been shown to curb cravings.
  • Most times, I play with others. One study showed that social connections during exercise improved energy, which then improved performance.

And of course, there are the lessons golf taught me that spilled over into other areas of my life:

Mind the details: Learning all the things that go into a golf swing – position, grip, speed, where to place your feet, where to keep your eyes – reminded me that even seemingly minute details have consequences. Efficiency has its place, but not rushing does too. Important for work, important for relationships, important for life. 

Move forward: My golf friends tell me to forget about the last shot; the only important one is the next one. It’s a good reminder about not getting too far ahead – and being patient. The next meal will get me to my weight loss goals, not worrying about Friday’s half-cup of queso.

Enlist help: We all want to have success on our own merits, but the greatest strides I made were because I took four different lessons with three different people. They all taught me different but crucial things, and they’re the only reason I’ve made some progress. Use your support systems to jet-fuel your education.

Enjoy the moment: Whether I’ve had a bad score, a horrible score, or a horribly bad score, we always say, “never a bad day to be out here.” And that goes for whenever I’m playing with my friends or my sons, or even by myself.

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