Try these four health-boosting ways to play.

This spring I needed a change. So I ditched my regular workout and joined the squash league at my local club. I had an absolute riot getting my butt kicked each week! Squash is fast, sweaty and fun.

Now that league play is over, I’m back to my regular workout and jogging route and my semiregular attempts to catch my kids on the playground. (Who knew 10-year-olds were so fast?)

But I have changed. I’m not huffing quite so much on my jogs. I’m lifting more than I thought I would after such a long break. And I’m catching up to my kids again (woo-hoo!).

At least, it feels like I’m faster and stronger. But could all this improvement just be in my head? Could playing squash for a few months improve everything else?

According to the science, I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses. The physical benefits of squash include increased strength and metabolism, among others. In fact, all kinds of active play have health benefits that improve daily life.

Four types of active play

We can divide active play using two parameters:

Intensity—play can be easy and relaxed, or hard and intense; and

Continuity—play can be start-and-stop or continuous.

Combining the different parameters gives us four different types of active play. Each type has unique benefits for our health.

1. Easy start-and-stop play

This type of play sets us up right for any activity. While not hugely demanding, relaxed play does increase our body’s need for oxygen.

Over time, this signals our body to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, increasing the amount of oxygen available (which makes everything we do more efficient).

Think of this like getting a bucket of golf balls at the driving range. If you had only one or two balls to hit, you’d spend more time picking them up than you would hitting. With a full bucket, you can get more hits in less time.


  • Golfing at a driving range
  • Flying a kite
  • Bowling
  • Curling
  • Playing hide and seek

2. Easy continuous play

This type of play has serious benefits: It makes our hearts stronger and protects against heart disease.

Continuous play demands an ongoing supply of oxygen-rich blood to the body. Initially, our heart pumps more frequently to take care of this demand. But with more exposure to this type of play, the part of the heart pumping blood out to the body (the left ventricle) gets bigger.

A bigger left ventricle means our heart pumps more blood with each beat, which can protect us from heart attacks.


  • Walking
  • Dancing
  • Leisurely bike riding
  • Gardening/doing yard work
  • Playing golf
  • Jogging

3. Hard start-and-stop play

Most high-action sports (like squash!) fall into this category of play, which alternates short bursts of intense action with a rest period for catching our breath.

This dance between hard work and rest benefits our health in three important ways. First, it helps us build strength and power. This explains why taking a break from my workouts to play squash didn’t set me back the way I thought it would.

Second, it helps the body become more efficient at recovering from intense effort. We catch our breath faster between points or plays.

And third, intense play burns a lot of energy, even after we’re done playing.


  • Playing soccer
  • Playing tennis
  • Jumping rope
  • Mountain biking
  • Playing street hockey
  • Playing squash

4. Hard continuous play

Going all out isn’t something we can do for very long without a break. And sometimes it’s not always fun in the traditional sense. But for bragging rights and health, the payoff is huge. This type of play affects the hormones that help us build muscle and make us stronger and faster.

Like with hard start-and-stop play, we burn off a huge amount of energy, even after we’re done.


  • Playing tag
  • Running stadium stairs
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Hiking up a mountain
  • Running longer sprints (of the “race you home” variety)

“A child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” —Dr. Benjamin Spock (1903–1998), American pediatrician

The catch

We need some of each type of play to keep us healthy. As adults, we tend to pick one thing and focus. But this puts us at risk of overdoing it because play, like exercise, is a stress on the body.

So when is it time to call yourself in for dinner and take a break? The answer depends on what you’re already used to doing. Right now, I can get out for a few games of squash and feel great afterward. But 18 holes of golf will leave me achy and sore. Even though golf is less intense, it’s still a new stress on my body.

Just as with any exercise, gradually building up the amount and intensity of play offers the most health benefits.

Photo credit: kzenon, 123RF