The organisation Knit for Peace carried out a widespread literature review looking at the health benefits of the traditional craft after receiving testimonials from their 15,000 volunteers about how the hobby had improved their lives.
They discovered that knitting is as relaxing as yoga, distracts from chronic pain, such as arthritis, boosts wellbeing, brings down blood pressure and keeps the mind sharp.
It also reduces loneliness and isolation and allows older people to feel as if they are still useful to society.
In Britain, the NHS spends more than £2 billion each year on blood pressure treatments, and around £300 million on antidepressants. Dementia costs the country £26 billion while the health service spends billions annually tackling chronic pain.
So prescribing knitting could be a cheap way to battle a host of age-related conditions, the report concludes.
“Research has shown there is a growing crisis in primary care and with GP services in particular. Now is the time to adopt more imaginative and innovative approaches,” the authors write.
“As a skilled and creative occupation, knitting has a therapeutic potential. There is an enormous amount of research showing that knitting has physical and mental health benefits.”
Knit for Peace was founded by the Charities Advisory Trust originally as an income generating projected for Hutu and Tutsi widows who had been the victims of the Rwandan genocide and civil war. Through the Good Gifts catalogue people could pay for the women to knit jumpers for orphans.
The scheme quickly spread to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan and soon British knitters asked if they could donate their own work to refugees.
Dame Hilary Blume, founder and director of the Charities Advisory Trust and Knit for Peace, said: “Knitters started coming to me asking if they could send clothing to Afghanistan. ‘We’re sending them soldiers, so why not warm jumpers?’ they said.
“Our premise always is if someone wants to help we try and facilitate that. I was expecting about three baby hats in a Jiffy bag but suddenly we had this tsunami of knitting.
“We get around 40 parcels a day, and if we didn’t send things out every single day, we wouldn’t have room to move.
“People are incredibly generous. If I had knitted an incredibly complex Fair Isle sweater, I would want to frame it, but people send them to us.
“And people would often include notes saying how knitting improved their lives, and how it made them still feel useful, so we decided to carry out a review to see what the evidence was.”
The new review found that knitting lowers heart rate by an average 11 beats per minute and induces ‘an enhanced state of calm’ and even the same state of ‘flow’ experienced by athletes when they are ‘in the zone’ which causes a drop in stress hormones and blood pressure.
It also helps chronic pain by switching off alarm signals in the brain, because the focus is turned elsewhere. Repetitive movement also boosts calming serotonin which lifts mood and dulls pain.
A study of over 70s by the Mayo Clinic in the US , found that knitting was associated with decreased odds of experiencing mild-cognitive impairment, which increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The process of creating an object also boosts the reward centres of the brain and can help lower depression. And many former smokers have used knitting as a way to control their cravings to reach for cigarettes, by keeping their hands busy with the needles.
“We found a surprisingly large body of research showing the health benefits of knitting. What is more surprising is how little known the research is,” added Dame Hilary.
“Knitting is often dismissed or derided as old-fashioned but it should be promoted because of its health-giving qualities.
“Every GP appointment costs around £45 but we believe knitting could help prevent people needing to visit the doctor so much, and help them feel happier, less isolated, and more healthy.”
The report also calls for knitting to be taught in schools.