Exercise as Play

By: Lauryn Gladd

 When it comes to play, kids are the experts- and it’s time we learn from them. Over the summer, I worked at a day camp where I traveled from activity to activity with campers, often participating in the activities myself. Sports, water play, and recess all involved a notable amount of exercise, but any physical effort involved was overshadowed by the fun of it all.

In the past, I’ve fallen into the pattern of treating exercise like a chore; I’d squeeze an inconvenient run into my busy schedule just so I could check “exercise” off my daily to-do list.  It took a handful of six-year old campers recruiting me to their game of tag to show me an alternative, and more fun, approach to cardio. To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed sprinting around the gym and dodging their outstretched arms. Honestly, I hadn’t ran that fast in months. Overall, the spirit of the game left no room for boredom, and I was reminded that exercise doesn’t have to be so forced or gruelling. 

In fact, exercising for pure enjoyment is commonly overlooked by college-aged women (Ednie & Stibor, 2016). According to a study in which college women were asked to rate their motives for exercising on a 5-point scale (5 being most true for them), enjoyment scored an average of 3.14. In contrast, categories such as strength/endurance, appearance, and weight management were all rated higher, with scores of 4.41, 4.2, and 4.12 (Ednie & Stibor, 2016). It turns out that exercising for enjoyment, or remembering how to “play”, is undoubtedly beneficial to our physical and mental health. 

Why Play?

  1. Sustainable long-term

When comparing different types of exercise, play and sport stand out because we are intrinsically motivated to participate in them. This means our enjoyment comes from doing the activity itself, and not just from the results. In fact, sport’s characteristics and appeal makes it “the most practiced form of physical activity and exercise across the world” (Nesti, 2016). In addition, our love of playing means that “lifelong participation is seen frequently” (Nesti, 2016). This lasting engagement with physical activity improves our physical health in a variety of ways, including reducing our risk of cardiovascular disease and helping us live longer (Reimers et al., 2012). In fact, “all-cause mortality is decreased by about 30% to 35% in physically active as compared to inactive subjects” (Reimers et al., 2012). We keep doing what we love to do, and in return, we reap the health benefits of an active lifestyle. 

  1. Mental health benefits

The more we can look forward to exercise instead of dreading it, the better. Play reduces stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) and releases feel-good hormones (endorphins) (Ajiboye, 2018). In addition, as we age, play “wards off depression, improves cognitive health and lowers [our] risk of developing age-related diseases like dementia” (Ajiboye, 2018). Overall, doing activities we enjoy improves our mental health and helps us live a happier life.

How Can I Play?

If creating your own elementary school gym class isn’t an option, here are some other ways to add some fun to your workouts:

  • Recruit your friends

Adding a social aspect to your exercise routine could be a great way to enhance your enjoyment. Whether it’s forming a pick-up basketball game or going on a long walk with some friends, doing physical activity with others can increase our incentive to exercise in an enjoyable and social way. 

  • Change it up

Variety is a great way to keep exercise interesting. Is there some game or sport that you loved to do as a kid, but haven’t played in years? Dig out your old field hockey stick, or your worn out soccer cleats to diversify your exercise regimen! You could also try something completely new. The options are endless; give yoga, pilates, boxing, or even spinning a try! 

  • Take it outdoors

Studies show that green exercise elevates mood and reduces perceived effort (Gladwell et al., 2013). In my experience, running is significantly easier when I have a scenic route; and in fact, now is the perfect time for a fun outdoor adventure to embrace the final weeks of summer. 

Reference List:

Ajiboye, T. (2018, July 7). Adults need recess too. here’s why you should make time to play. NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/adults-need-recess-too-here-s-why-you-should-make-ncna887396. 

Ednie, A. J., & Stibor, M. D. (2016, September 12). Extrinsic motivations: Relevance and significance for exercise adherence. Journal of Physical Activity Research. http://pubs.sciepub.com/jpar/1/1/6/index.html. 

Gladwell, V. F., Brown, D. K., Wood, C., Sandercock, G. R., & Barton, J. L. (2013, January 3). The great outdoors: How a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extreme physiology & medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3710158/#B28. 

Nesti, M. S. (2016, June). Exercise for health: Serious fun for the whole person? Journal of sport and health science. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6188716/. Reimers, C. D., Knapp, G., & Reimers, A. K. (2012). Does physical activity increase life expectancy? A review of the literature. Journal of aging research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3395188/.

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