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Chronic Illness

Why Hobbies Matter in Chronic Illness

The importance of taking leisure seriously.

Key points

  • Leisure enhances identity, competence, connection and enjoyment.
  • Chronic illness can limit leisure activities; yet the importance of leisure remains.
  • People who live with chronic illness can be creative in finding ways to enjoy leisure activities.
Katie Willard Virant
Katie Willard Virant

Leisure is defined as “the pursuit of pleasurable, discretionary activities (McQuoid, 2017).” Leisure—what we do for fun—encompasses a myriad of activities. Some leisure activities don’t involve much skill or training, such as chatting with friends or watching television. Other leisure activities occur over a longer period and involve a process of skill-building, such as playing a musical instrument or learning a craft.

We tend to trivialize leisure as something nice but hardly necessary. Leisure often is seen as the dessert of life—pleasant but not necessary, perhaps even a bit indulgent. What if we’re wrong about this, though? What if we discount leisure too readily, particularly as a vital part of a chronic illness treatment plan?

Leisure participation is important.

Leisure participation is linked to better physical and mental health (McQuaid, 2017). Leisure provides us with pleasure—we are engaging in activities simply because we enjoy them, which uplifts our mood. Leisure also provides us with a feeling of competence—we become more skilled and adept at the activities we choose to practice.

Leisure also provides us with a sense of identity—we come to see ourselves as “Tom the runner,” “Debbie the quilter,” or “Maria the photographer.” Finally, leisure provides us with community, as our engagement and growing expertise in leisure activities lead us to connect with other individuals who enjoy the same pursuits.

In chronic illness, leisure activities are important in the short run—as a buffer from immediate stressors (Hutchinson et al., 2003). That is, turning our attention to an enjoyable activity can help distract us from our symptoms and pain, creating a feeling of ease and relaxation in our bodies. Leisure activities also help us long-term, providing structure, purpose, identity, and hope (Hutchinson et al., 2003).

Chronic illness limits how we engage in leisure.

Health status is a factor that shapes leisure. Chronic illness limits our energy, our time, our physical and mental capabilities, and the spaces we can inhabit comfortably.

Something as simple as meeting in the park to birdwatch can be challenging for people living with illness. Does illness limit our ability to drive to the park? To move through the park? To be outdoors? To be around other people? Do we need restrooms, breaks, places to sit? If our symptoms increase, will we have the resources to manage them? The potential obstacles involved in engaging with this activity can feel so anxiety-producing that we give up before we begin.

Chronic illness also interferes with continuity and rhythm. We don’t know how we will feel week to week, day to day, and sometimes even moment to moment. Leisure that depends upon skill-building and agreed-upon meetings, such as joining a musical ensemble or enrolling in an exercise program, can feel impossible when we can’t count on being able to participate during each scheduled practice session.

Given the importance of leisure in fostering identity, competence, community, and pleasure, it’s a significant loss when chronic illness impedes leisure pursuits. We need to take seriously what we are losing when chronic illness limits leisure activities and find ways to honor leisure as an important facet of chronic illness care.

Prioritize participating in leisure activities as a person living with illness.

People living with chronic illness can still participate in leisure activities. Some tips to keep in mind include the following:

  • Find activities that can be picked up and put down as your health requires. Because of fluctuations in our symptoms, hobbies that can be taken up and put away as we need are particularly user-friendly. Knitting, reading, walking, listening to music, making art, and cooking are examples.
  • For activities that require skill-building, be patient with yourself. You may not be able to practice a musical instrument daily or meet all of your targeted exercise goals. That’s OK. Try to enjoy the process. Your illness may mean that you will progress more slowly, but you still will progress.
  • Use your computer to connect with community. You may not be able to attend in-person meetings with fellow hobbyists, but you probably can find a message board or social media group dedicated to your favorite hobby. Be as active as you’re able on these sites, cultivating leisure-related relationships.

You are more than your illness.

We often feel defined by chronic illness. It affects our lives so profoundly that it becomes easy to imagine that it is the most important fact about us. The pursuit of leisure activities pushes back against this limiting narrative, opening up our worlds and expanding our sense of who we are.


Hutchinson, S., Loy, D. P., Kleiber, D. A., & Dattilo, J. (2003). Leisure as a Coping Resource: Variations in Coping with Traumatic Injury and Illness.

McQuoid J. (2017). Finding joy in poor health: The leisure-scapes of chronic illness. Social science & medicine (1982), 183, 88–96.

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