I often extoll the many virtues of knitting when I talk to a newbie but decided it would be worthwhile to share some of the extensive research on the benefits of knitting (and crochet). It's quite a list, and I may be missing some things including building frustration tolerance and math skills, which deserve their own posts. I am also not going to mention the obvious benefits that come with creating, wearing and enjoying something handmade.
Here's what the research shows.
1. Knitting is the new yoga
A 2007 study conducted by Harvard Medical School’s Mind and Body Institute, found that knitting lowers heart rate, by an average of 11 beats per minute, and induces an “enhanced state of calm,” similar to that of yoga. Sweet.
2. It helps with weight management and eating disorders
Some people find that craftwork helps them control their weight. Just as it is challenging to smoke while knitting, when hands are holding needles and hooks, there’s less snacking and mindless eating out of boredom. (NY Times, 2016)
A 2009 study published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders showed that whenwomen with anorexia nervosa were taught to knit and given free access to knitting supplies, they reported significant improvements. An impressive 74 percent said knitting lessened their fears and kept them from ruminating about their eating disorders; 74 percent lauded the calming aspects of the craft and 53 percent said it provided satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.
3. Knitting reduces burnout
Personally aware of the incredible strain and loss oncology nurses experience at Georgetown University Hospital, two graduate students wondered whether knitting might mitigate some of the burnout—or “compassion fatigue”—these nurses experienced. The students administered a survey to the nurses that measured burnout at two junctures: before learning to knit and 13 weeks later, after they had learned. Everyone’s burnout scores improved, especially the nurses who were the most burned out prior to the study. In answers to open-ended questions, nurses extolled the soothing rhythm of knitting and distraction from work-related fatigue.
4. It protects your brain
In a 2011 study, researchers led by Dr. Yonas E. Geda, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., interviewed a random sample of 1,321 people ages 70 to 89, most of whom were cognitively normal, about the cognitive activities they engaged in late in life. The study, published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, found that those who engaged in crafts like knitting and crocheting had a diminished chance of developing mild cognitive impairment and memory loss.
Although it is possible that only people who are cognitively healthy would pursue such activities, those who read newspapers or magazines or played music did not show similar benefits. The researchers speculate that craft activities promote the development of neural pathways in the brain that help to maintain cognitive health.
They theorize that participating in knitting and crochet makes “deposits into an individual’s brain bank,” creating a cognitive reserve which can ultimately protect them from cognitive impairment from diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Having seen my Grandmother suffer from dementia for ten years, I find this research very motivating when I knit.
5. It relieves both head and hands
Carrie Barron, a psychiatrist with the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and a knitter, lauds handiwork as a tool for alleviating anxiety and depression. Her husband, Alton Barron, orthopedic surgeon and president of the New York Society for Surgery of the Hand, says knitting can prevent arthritis and tendinitis.
The doctor duo have traveled the country promoting the benefits of knitting.
Using your hands meaningfully triggers healthy engagement and activity in about 60 percent of your brain, said Alton Barron. The rhythmic, mathematical nature of knitting and crocheting keep the mind absorbed in a healthy way, providing an escape from stressful thoughts but allowing for internal reflection, said Carrie Barron. While television can engage people from the outside, the mind requires stimulation from within in order to "free associate" or think imaginatively, she said. The psychiatrist suspects the return to knitting is a response to the rise in technology, much like the arts and craft movement followed the industrial revolution.
"There's something so gratifying about taking strings and pieces and making them whole," she said. "There's something primitive and innate about that. The fragments of the mind also come together in that process. It's a parallel process between the mind and the hands."
In 2014, CNN studied the effects of knitting on mood as part of their This Is Your Brain series. Participants were all diagnosed with clinical depression, and 81% reported feelings of “very happy” after knitting for a short amount of time. Knitting podcaster and model Kristy Glass has said she knits to keep from needing mood medication. Enough said.
6. Mood repair: knitters have lessened inflammatory stress response
Clinical psychologist Ann Futterman-Collier who runs the Well Being Lab at Northern Arizona University, is studying what Arizona Public Radio station KNAU calls “Textile Therapy” — the emotional benefits of knitting, as well as crocheting, weaving and quilting.
Futterman-Collier studied 60 women suffering from various levels of stress. She had them either work with textiles, write or meditate. During their respective activities, the women kept track of their moods. And for good measure, Futterman-Collier also took saliva samples, monitored their heart rates to determine their stress levels and measured their inflammation. She then compared the stress-reducing results of each of the three activities.
"Textile handcraft making was associated with the greatest mood repair, increases in positive, decreases in negative mood," she tells KNAU. "People who were given the task to make something actually had less of an inflammatory response in the face of a ‘stressor’."
7. It helps with problem solving when done on the regular
A study published in the February 2013 issue of the British Journal of Occupational Therapy, revealed that the majority of knitters reported a significant relationship between knitting frequency and feeling calm and happy. Respondents, who knit the most often, said that knitting positively affected their cognitive functioning, helping them to sort through problems or think more easily.
Remember to get up from knitting periodically. I recently saw yogi and author Suzan Colon speak and she recommend stretching once every five rows. That's not likely to happen for me, but it is a good reminder to avoid sitting for too long. Also, you will want to keep these stretches for knitters on hand. Even healthy activities require breaks and stretching.
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