When I picked up knitting needles for the first time about two years ago, I couldn’t have imagined how vital the hobby would become to my well-being. Learning to knit was hard for me, but once I mastered it, the craft became addictive, in a good way: It calmed me and helped me to write and to deal with the frustrations of motherhood.
Crafters have long recognized the therapeutic value of activities such as knitting and crocheting. (A 2013 survey of more than 3,500 knitters worldwide, for example, found that 81.5 percent of respondents rated themselves as feeling happier after knitting.)
But could crafts such as knitting offer more far-reaching, long-term health benefits?
Mind-stimulating activities such as these have been used by occupational therapists to alleviate symptoms of depression and to help improve motor functions in people with illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, says Sharon Gutman, an occupational therapist at Columbia University in New York.
In a 2007 review paper, Gutman and Victoria Schindler surveyed the scientific literature that analyzes the neurological basis for how hobbies and activities relate to health and well-being. They found that engaging in such activities as arts and crafts, music, meditation, home repairs and reading stimulates the mind, reduces the effects of stress-related diseases and slows cognitive decline.
But researchers are beginning to understand the neurological basis for why these activities are good for the mind.
In a 2012 study, Mayo Clinic professor of neurology and psychiatry Yonas Geda and colleagues studied the effects of activities including knitting, quilting and playing games in 1,321 seniors, nearly 200 of whom had mild cognitive impairment, an intermediate stage between normal aging and dementia. The researchers found that those who engaged in crafting, computer activities, playing games and reading books were 30 to 50 percent less likely to have mild cognitive impairment than those who did not.
Geda notes that activities such as crafting may help build up “cognitive reserves and the ability to buffer and withstand lots of assault by bad chemicals in the brain and bad proteins accumulating.” He points to animal studies showing that mice and rats living in enriched surroundings — such as with running wheels, toys and complex environments — are less likely than others to develop cognitive problems such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
One reason, Gutman says, is that these activities engage several of the brain’s lobes — the frontal lobe (which guides rewards processing, attention and planning), the parietal lobe (which handles sensory information and spatial navigation), the occipital lobe (which processes visual information), the temporal lobe (which is involved in storing memories and interpreting language and meaning) and the cerebellum (which coordinates precision and timing of movement).
Calling on all of these brain regions stimulates neural connections and keeps the connections working quickly and efficiently, Gutman says. The more we use these connections as we age, “the more they seem to stay intact and preserve our brain’s function and stave off illnesses such as dementia.”
So far, only a handful of studies have explored the therapeutic potential of crafting activities. In one study, 38 women hospitalized for anorexia were given a questionnaire about their psychological state after being taught to knit.
After an average of one hour and 20 minutes of knitting a day for an average of three weeks, 74 percent of them reported less fear and preoccupation with their eating disorder, the same percentage reported that knitting had a calming effect, and just over half said knitting gave them a sense of pride, satisfaction and accomplishment.
There is a great deal more anecdotal evidence of the beneficial health effects of knitting. For instance, the McLean-based nonprofit Project Knitwell, which offers knitting instruction for caregivers, hospital staff, patients and patients’ relatives, has found that participants “are less worried and feel a great sense of accomplishment when they complete a knitted item,” says the group’s founder, Carol Caparosa. “We work with many new mothers whose babies are born prematurely and they may not be able to hold their babies for weeks after their birth, but they can knit them a hat, which brings them a tremendous sense of pride and feeling of mothering.”
The rhythmic movements of knitting offer many of the same kinds of benefits as meditation, says Carrie Barron, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York and co-author of the book “The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness With Your Own Two Hands.” In addition, she says, seeing a project take shape provides a deep sense of satisfaction. “When we have a life-affirming project going on that grabs the self and gets it to work in a positive way, that is an antidepressant,” Barron says.
I will keep all of this in mind the next time one of my knitting projects goes awry. It’s good to be reminded that it’s the process — not just the end product — that matters.
|'Knit for Health and Wellness. How to knit a flexible mind and more…' pulls together the work to date. |
It is available in e-book, pdf or print format directly from us.
Take a look at our Knitting Equation for a quick summary of the meditative, creative and social benefits of knitting.
The word 'knitting' has been the biggest barrier to this work – everyone has their preconceptions about it. We urge you to look at it from a different perspective – that of a bilateral, rhythmic, psychosocial intervention which has the power to transform people's lives.
We have been collecting narratives since 2005 and continue to do so from knitters, stitchers and crocheters around the world. The stories we've collected so far have been themed and have been invaluable in helping us form a number of theories.
As you'll see from our Knitting Equation the benefits are complex and closely entwined which makes researching them difficult. It's hard to tease apart, or independently test, the various mechanisms involved. Indeed, they are all so closely interwoven and interactive that we could well change the very nature of what is occurring by attempting to unravel the complexities.
See studies in progress.
See completed studies.
There is no doubt that developing an interest or hobby is good for you. It gives you a point of focus outside yourself.
These benefits go deep with physiological, neurological, psychological, behavioural and social changes occuring.Knowing this can enable you to use your craft as a tool to deliberatley improve your wellbeing.
Combine this with knowledge about health and wellbeing and you have a powerful tool at your fingertips any time, anywhere. Knitting's portability plays a key role in making its benefits available when you need it. We have helped people to use it to successfully manage panic, anxiety and pain spasms when out and about as well as problems with sleep and social confidence.
The skills and feelings experienced whilst knitting are transferrable to everyday life. They can also be used to facilitate the learning of other beneficial techniques, such as meditation, relaxation and pacing making them more accessible to a wider population.
Knitters learn other valuable life skills such as patience, perseverance, and the knowledge that mistakes can be undone. These skills can be utilised in the self-management of health and illness, in education and the workplace. It teaches you that goals can be reached despite a few detours along the way and often the end goal is richer because of those diversions and lessons learned.
There is something vitally important about being actively creative as opposed to being a passive recipient of a destructive force you feel you have no control over, such as stress, depression or pain.
Knitting provides a great way of developing creativite ability within the safe framework of the knitting pattern. It provides a structure within which the vulnerable feel safe to begin their creative journey. As confidence and ability develop, creativity can be encouraged until the individual is happy to experiment and deal with the setbacks that experimentation and exploration may bring.
Our work indicates that creative ability is closely linked to wellbeing, psycholgical flexibility and the ability to self-manage and problem solve.Thinking creatively gives you more options.
If you are a researcher or health professional and would like to be a part of this exciting project, please Contact Us.