By Chris Woolston, M.S.
You might hit the tennis courts a few times a month. You might go to the gym like clockwork. Perhaps you've just returned from a Hawaii vacation. But ask yourself: When was the last time you really lost yourself in fun? When was the last time that minutes and hours just seemed to fly by as you engaged your body and mind? In other words, when was the last time you really played?
For adults, playtime is a valuable but rare commodity. Many of us alternate between being stressed out at work and bored at home. But it doesn't have to be that way, says Brian Clocksin, PhD, an assistant professor of physical education and sports sciences at Hofstra University and a member of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
"Just go to a park and remember what you used to do in childhood," he says. "You don't need any special training." It doesn't take any special equipment, either. Just about every garage or basement in the country has a few dusty Frisbees, balls, or other items that could quickly spark a game. We even have the time. Think you're too busy? Remember that the White House has a basketball hoop, horseshoe pits, and a tennis court. If the Leader of the Free World has time for a game, so do you.
Playtime is a crucial part of childhood, but adults need to play, too. As psychiatrist Stuart Brown, M.D. writes in his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (Avery Books, 2009), "The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person." Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, California, and other experts believe that adults everywhere can play their way to longer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives. They simply need to appreciate quality fun time and make a commitment to add it to their lives.
What is play?
What are we talking about when we talk about play? We know from childhood that play is something you choose to do for fun -- not because someone is forcing you (or paying you) to do it. We also know that real play activates the brain, the body, or both. (No, watching TV doesn't count.)
Experts have gone beyond this basic definition to identify seven distinct types of play, each offering their own brand of fun. The seven categories -- object play, attunement (bonding) play, social play, body play, imaginative play, narrative play, and creative play -- were first identified by psychologists using play therapy for children. Adults can use them to create a little play therapy of their own, Clocksin says. Get three or four of these into your regular routine, and you'll enjoy the many benefits of a playful life.
- Object play. Throw a Frisbee, fly a kite, or work a fly rod. Busy hands are a great stress reliever.
- Attunement (bonding) play. Play can be a great way to connect with your kids or with friends. Find a common interest -- perhaps bike riding or basketball -- and get out there.
- Social play. Group activities -- whether it's dancing at a club or working on a group quilting project -- can be especially fulfilling. Meeting other people in friendly, relaxed circumstances is a great hedge against stress and depression, and you just might start some new friendships in the bargain.
- Body play. Swimming, cycling, playing tag with the kids -- staying fit really can be fun.
- Imaginative play. Few adults outside of Star Trek conventions manage to spend much time imagining other worlds or taking on new personae. And that's too bad. A little make-believe can be a great escape from the pressures of real life. "Adults with children have an advantage," Clocksin says. "It's easier and more socially acceptable to goof around if you have kids."
- Narrative play. Wild story-telling used to be a major human pastime. Now it's a lost art. Try turning off the TV and tell a tale, real or imagined. Simply reading a good book to a child could be the highlight of your day.
- Creative play. Painting, playing the guitar, writing a poem or blog, figuring out a puzzle -- playtime can really get the brain buzzing.
For adults, playtime can be more than just a pleasant diversion. A 2008 Swedish study of more than 300,000 male and female golfers suggested that simply playing golf could add about five years to a person's life. That's at least partly owed to the physical activity associated with golfing.
Not surprisingly, physically active play seems to have the biggest payoff. A 20-year study of men in Sweden found that regular physical activity during free time protected against both cancer and cardiovascular disease while cutting the overall risk of dying by about 30 percent. (The study also proved, once again, that Swedes take their play research seriously.) This may be particularly important because roughly one in four adults say they've had exactly zero physical activity outside of work in the previous month.
But there's a lot to be said for playing with your mind, too. Puzzles and games that stretch your thinking skills can help keep you sharp for now and in decades to come. A 2006 study by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that elderly people who regularly engaged in brain-stimulating activities -- including working on crossword puzzles, playing music, playing games, or talking in a group -- enjoyed dramatic protection from memory loss. Compared with people who rarely worked their brains, the gamers and players were about half as likely to be diagnosed with significant memory problems in the next five and a half years. (Of course, it could also be that people already suffering from mild brain impairment were less likely to do crossword puzzles and other such games.)
The playful life
Play may be fun and healthy, but it's not especially popular. Clocksin fears that most people have become generally unplayful in their daily lives. "We spend so much time with computers and TV," he says. "The scary thing is that even kids have forgotten how to play. A school recently hired me to go to a playground to show the kids how to play on the playground. They didn't know what to do."
If you want to add more play to your life, then, it's smart to avoid a couple of common pitfalls. Brown advises against dramatically boosting your screen time for the sake of play. Video or computer games can be fun, but they have two major drawbacks: They tend to be solitary pursuits, and (with a few exceptions, such as the Wii Fit) they encourage inactivity. As for TV, well, if sitting back and watching a show fits your idea of playtime, you probably need to get out more.
You should also avoid making playtime a "special occasion." If you wait until your vacation to become more playful, you're unlikely to enjoy any real, long-lasting benefits. A good vacation really can help relieve your stress and make you feel healthier and more energized, but research shows that such good feelings tend to disappear within two to four weeks after returning to work. In other words, even people who can jet to a tropical beach or take a cruise quickly fall back into life-as-usual mode. If play isn't part of your usual life, it's hardly part of your life at all.
Clocksin has some simple advice for adults who want to discover (or rediscover) the value of play. The first step: Go outside. Simply getting out from under a roof seems to bring out the playfulness in everyone, he says. And the more time a person spends outside, he says, the more benefits they'll enjoy. "Being outside improves concentration and relieves stress," he says.
If you're still stuck for ideas, try to remember a time in your past when you felt especially playful. Did you love codes and treasure hunts in grade school? If so, you may enjoy Geocaching -- a type of treasure hunt game involving a hand-held GPS. Do you remember dancing the night away? You may want to take a few classes in swing or salsa and hit the clubs. And of course, those long-ago pillow fights and mock-wrestling with your siblings can be re-enacted with your own kids. You may not be able to recreate the exact scene, but you should be able to once again find the feeling. When you need a real boost, play is the thing.
-- Chris Woolston, MS, is a former staff writer for Hippocrates magazine who has written for Health, Hippocrates, and other journals. He writes The Healthy Skeptic, a biweekly health column in the Los Angeles Times. He is also the co-author of Generation Extra Large: Rescuing Our Children from the Epidemic of Obesity (Perseus paperback, 2006).
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