How Play Can Make You Fitter and Happier
“We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” - George Bernard Shaw
When was the last time you played? I mean really played. You might regard organized sport as playtime or going to a party and getting drunk as play, but what I am talking about is play that is activity based on unadulterated and joyful movement.
When children are asked what they think is important in life, play is often at the top of the list. Of course, most of us reading this article are no longer children, so how is this relevant to us as adults?
The Purpose of Play
Play is not difficult to justify. Playful movement promotes practical strength, balance, agility, coordination, speed, skill, and mental focus. Play unlocks the mind, it samples endless possibilities, and it seeks and finds new levels of creative opportunities.
Play is key to physical, mental, and social wellbeing, but it is often underrated and viewed as superfluous. Play is endemic to human development - a biological necessity based on our survival. Play is life. As Stuart Brown the founder of the American National Institute for Play stated, “When we stop playing, we start dying.”
When Exercise Is Punishment, Not Enjoyment
Stacked against this evidence when it comes to exercise and activity, adults still tend to opt for a workout rather than a play-out. I often get posed the question “Why should we play, Darryl? I have better things to do with my time!"
As is the case in most instances, the question is easily asked, but the answer comes through participation. I usually respond to people with a playful activity that challenges their perception of fitness. For example, try arm-wrestling a partner while standing on one leg. I mean it - go get a play partner and try it to see what I mean! This simple activity works so many aspects of fitness in a surprisingly challenging way, but also with an element of fun.
My perspective is that the fitness industry has a preference for sweat, pain, and suffering. We mistakenly believe it is mandatory to undergo significant sacrifice in order to get fit. We should be punished for even thinking about being sedentary - no pain, no gain!
Of course don’t get me wrong there is a time and a place for hard work, and I’ve done my fair share of it. But what I am suggesting is that we should find time for serious play, too.
But Darryl, Isn’t Play Just for Kids?
Play can be confusing for us adults. It is either seen as frivolous, deemed as foolish, or blanketed as childish activity related to relieving boredom with no well-defined goals.
Adults often judge play as an unnecessary task even for their children. Instead, they encourage their children to attend more organized activities based on education or leaning toward developing sports talent. Time for spontaneous play is more and more difficult to achieve. It’s ironic that we now pay other people to teach our kids how to play.
This was remarked upon by David Elkind in a piece he wrote for the American Journal of Play:
School administrators and teachers - often backed by goal-orientated politicians and parents - broadcast the not-so-suitable message that these days play seems superfluous, that at bottom play is for slackers, that if kids must play, they should at least learn something while they are doing it.1
The Two Types of Play
There are two aspects of play that are particularly relevant to us as adults - progressive play and imaginative play:
Progressive play serves the purpose of advancement. Advancing from young to old through the function of play. Imagine a kitten practicing how to pounce, which is a precursor to catching prey, or a child learning how to climb a tree, developing tactics to manage risk as well as the ability to climb.
Imaginative play utilizes techniques such as visualization and focus to make you work harder. This is one reason athletes often use visualization when training to improve their performance. Research demonstrates that visualization brings about quantifiable improvements as well as psychological changes.2 Studies also suggest that using mental imagery for movement can create similar electrical activity in the muscle as that seen during actual movement.3
Setting An Example For Our Kids
One thing we understand as parents is that our kids are influenced by what we do or do not do. If we demonstrate movement as being punitive, then our children will see movement and activity as punishing and something to fear.
If we are playful and excited about activity, it gives our children an opportunity to enjoy movement, too. Play is an essential activity regardless of age. As adults, we need to learn how to play again!
So What Can We Do?
Playful movement does not need to be complicated. Lay it out in terms of basic movement patterns. Moves that are functional and possible to adapt for all - with challenges that can be scaled to each individual.
You can piggyback carry, focus on animal crawls and movements, or play games such as tag. Even better, create your own games! The process of creating your own ad hoc set of play is more rewarding then following a set prescription of moves. Focus on exploration and the experience.
10 Pointers for Play
- Seek to reclaim the enjoyment of movement that we experienced as children
- Make it BIG (broad, inclusive and general)
- Make sure play includes the active participation of others
- Make it fun with a small element of risk (imaginary or otherwise)
- Make play unpredictable and prepare for the unexpected
- Abide by the rules, change the rules, break the rules, have no rules
- Use the natural environment as your playground
- Use each other as exercise equipment
- Ge tchildren of all ages (including adults) to create the scenarios
- Minimize structure, time intervals, and penalties; encourage real-world movement, imagination, and rewards
1. David Elkind, "The Power of Play: Learning what comes naturally,” American Journal of Play, 2008.
2. Thelma S. Horn, Advances in Sport Psychology (Champaign IL, Human Kinetics, 2002).
3. Richard A. Schmidt and Timothy Donald Lee, Motor Control and Learning (Champaign IL, Human Kinetics, 1999).