Of all my patients, regardless of age, those who are happiest seem to share one activity secret. They each add a new sport every six months.
The happiness factor is a welcome side effect of an active and varied lifestyle. For each age group, the benefits of a multi-sport approach are slightly different.
For the young, regularly taking up a new sport counters the professionalization of youth sports. When I was young, all kids played three sports a year and took the summer off. The multi-sport kids learned agility and power as well as sportsmanship, from a wide variety of angles and coaches. The well-rounded athlete entered college and professional sports with skills that brought new dimensions to every sport.
However, today, if you want to be a college Division I athlete, the current dogma is that you must play the same sport year round, with specialty camps in the summer. This loss of variety not only breeds single-minded, single-focused athletes with overuse injuries that limit many of their seasons, it also creates a lot of unhappiness when, in many cases, the athletes don't make the starting roster.
For my 20- to 30-year-old athletes in college or early in their work careers, single-sport athletes are out of luck in the offseason or when the weather doesn't permit their sport or when work hours start early and finish late. The multi-sport athletes, on the other hand, always have an arrow in the quiver to use and a variety of friends to play with. But more importantly, by adding a new sport or activity every six months, they broaden their horizons and expand their career and happiness options.
Many 30- to 60-year-olds consider themselves too busy to think about new sports, yet they are the ones who need them the most. By adding something new every six months, they could bring spice to their life, now likely dominated by work, and add new challenges for their children and spouses to admire and join in on. Those who do this tend to push their midlife bodies to experience what we in sports medicine call healthy stresses and strains. The aging diseases of bone loss and sloping posture, in both women and men, are counteracted with muscle strengthening and cross-training. Additionally, the malaise of midlife is challenged by the healthy anxiety of being a beginner in a new sport and then mastering it.
My 60- to 90-year-old athletes tend to have hit the comfort zone in their sports activities and have an increasing fear of injury. Yet these people often benefit the most by the new friends made in a new gym or group sport. Choosing the sports that stress but don't hurt the body determines their enthusiasm for the new challenge.
So no matter what your age, every six months add a new sport or activity. Make new friends and smile all the way to the end.