Over the past decade, medical students and residents have exhibited a marked decline in the manual dexterity skills necessary for completing basic clinical procedures—and it may stem from their lack of hands-on hobbies, according to a recent article in The New York Times.
“It is a concern of mine and my scientific colleagues that whereas in the past you could make the assumption that students would leave school able to do certain practical things—cutting things out, making things—that is no longer the case,” Dr. Roger Kneebone, professor, Department of Surgery and Cancer, Imperial College London, United Kingdom, told BBC News.
Experts have suggested that this ineptitude in fine motor skills among the current generation of emerging clinicians may be due to less exposure to classes that require practical craft skills in primary and secondary schools, while others have argued that they are simply spending too much time swiping and thumb-typing on their phones than doing activities to hone their fine motor control.
“A lot of things are reduced to swiping on a two-dimensional flat screen,” Dr. Kneebone explained, which he argues hinders the exposure to and development of physical skills.
Regardless of the reason, more and more experienced members of the medical community are advocating for a simple solution to this growing problem: picking up a hands-on hobby.
“The sooner you begin doing a physical, repetitive task, the more ingrained and instinctive that motor skill becomes,” Robert Spetzler, MD, former president and chief executive officer of the Barrow Neurological Institute, Phoenix, AZ, told The New York Times.
But this advice doesn’t apply to just surgeons or medical students. Providers across all specialties and age groups can benefit from the kinesthetic intelligence and neurocognitive health benefits that manual hobbies can provide.
Needlework crafts. Earlier this year in July, surgeon Rhea Liang, MBChB, caused quite a stir across social media, gaining the moniker “Knitting Lady.” The reason? She was called out for crocheting while attending a professional conference in her homeland of Australia. She described the experience on Twitter, noting that although she was crocheting, she was still engaged in the presentation.
Hundreds of healthcare professionals—physicians, nurses, medical students, and occupational therapists—responded to her tweet in support, stating that they, too, have a hard time concentrating without keeping their hands busy in manual activity, including craftwork.
Their responses regarding the link between manual hobbies and cognitive engagement seem to speak to results from a 2011 study in which researchers showed that cognitively healthy individuals who practice crafts like knitting and crocheting had decreased odds of developing mild cognitive impairment and memory loss, compared with their peers who participated in other types of mentally stimulating activities, such as reading newspapers or magazines or playing music.
In addition to improved cognitive functioning, knitting has also been shown to aid in stress relief, enhance creativity, improve social contact and communication, and positively impact mood and perceptions of happiness.
Knitting may also have the added benefit of preventing arthritis and tendinitis. Moving the joints of the fingers keeps the joints lubricated and reduces the risk of arthritis, according to orthopedic hand specialist Alton Barron, MD. “If you let a joint sit, not only will it get stiff, but the actual cartilage will lose its structural integrity and break down,” he told The Sacramento Bee. “Most of us grow up thinking the more you use something the more it wears out, but that’s not the case with cartilage.”
Furthermore, in a 2014 study, other experts demonstrated that learning to quilt improved cognitive function in older adults, while individuals who participated in quilting in another study experienced enhanced self-esteem and well-being.
On a more tangible level, handiwork activities like sewing/needlepoint, cross-stitching, crocheting, knitting, and quilting require repetitive, keen eye-hand coordination that may be extremely beneficial to surgeons.
Art. Like needlework, certain artistic activities like painting, sculpting, and woodcarving can sharpen fine motor skills. But they can also be good for brain health. In a 2014 study, for instance, researchers showed that drawn words can improve memory recall by integrating visual, sematic, and motor aspects of the memory trace. This can be especially helpful for physicians who see a high volume of patients on a daily basis.
In another study, people over age 70 who did arts and crafts projects had a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment vs their peers who read books. Experts have also shown that visual art-making sessions can reduce cortisol levels, a proxy for stress, resulting in reduced symptoms of burnout and improved well-being.
Aquatic recreation. If you’re looking for a hobby that will offer a greater sense of adventure, physical and mental stimulation, and the opportunity to improve your fine motor skills, try sailing. Raising and changing the sails, steering and navigating, tying strong boat knots, and anchoring all require high levels of focus, stamina, dexterity, and grip strength.
Looking for a less intense hobby? Try your hand at fishing. Whether you’re fishing off the pier or a boat, this sport can be a physical workout (try reeling in a feisty 20-lb bluefish or an even bigger 70-lb striped bass). Also, learning to tie those small, intricate fishing knots in slippery conditions can be a “weighty” challenge.
Music. Playing an instrument requires extensive hand-eye coordination and can help strengthen dexterity. For instance, in his interview with The New York Times, Dr. Spetzler notes that he developed his dexterity as a child playing the piano. But the value of playing a musical instrument doesn’t stop at its physical benefits. Experts have shown that playing a musical instrument can increase your IQ; conserve gray matter, which preserves the structural integrity of the brain; improve your language and speech skills; and decrease stress.
In short, playing a musical instrument may be one of the best ways to keep your brain healthy, according to John Dani, PhD, chair of the Department of Neuroscience, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. “It engages every major part of the central nervous system,” he said. “Recent studies suggest that music may be a uniquely good form of exercising your brain.”
Playing the violin, for instance, requires the right hand to do something different than the left. The action requires the use of the peripheral nervous system, which controls finger movements and fine motor skills. The brain’s primary function of planning and making decisions is utilized as the musician plays one part but focuses on what’s coming next. Combined with the total sensory input, it becomes a total workout for the brain.
Sports. It should come as no surprise that sports, which require a superior level of hand-eye coordination and precision muscle control, are great for improving manual dexterity. In golf, manual dexterity relates to the correct positioning and movement of the hands on the golf club for an effective swing, with a special focus on the pressure points in the wrists. (Perhaps that’s why surgeons have been shown to be the best at the game among all physician specialties.) In baseball, manual dexterity can come in the form of baseball glove repair and re-lacing. Batters must also have good timing, focus, and cognitive thinking to track a ball’s trajectory.
On the surface, archery may appear to be relatively straightforward—a sport that does not involve a lot of physical activity or fine motor control. However, this line of thinking couldn’t be further from the truth. Practiced over time, archery can build upper body strength, improve concentration, and develop fine motor skills. It’s a sport that requires quick reflexes, balance, hand-eye synchronization, proper breathing techniques, muscle control, and patience. According to Prevention magazine, archery can also burn 140 calories in about 30 minutes—about the same calories burned at a brisk walking pace of 3.5 miles per hour.
Like archery, the skills involved in playing billiards or pool can be deceiving. Maneuvering the cue stick can be tricky, but can improve your fine motor skills with practice. At first, you might strike the cue ball too hard or too gently, but over time, you’ll develop an intuition as to how much force is required for each stroke. Your manual actions will slowly become more accurate, thus enhancing your wrist movement and finger-related skills.
Whether it’s knitting, painting, or strumming a guitar—whatever hands-on hobby you choose, make sure that it’s one you enjoy doing and are willing to commit to. After all, practice makes perfect—and, importantly, a great physician.