Treat the gym like your playground to make your movement a little more fun.

When we were young, play was our life; it was our existence. We played—with friends, with siblings, by ourselves, at day care, at home, at the park. Unless we were sitting in a shopping cart or strapped into a car seat, when we were young, our full-time job was simply to play.

At first glance, playing looks like meaningless activity for rambunctious children. However, play or, more specifically, playing with others, is a critical part of the human learning and development process. According to Dr. Stuart Brown, author of “Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul,” play is born through curiosity and exploration and is how we learn to interact with the world.

The evolution of our biology has led us to be hardwired for play from birth. When we play as children, we are learning how to react to others and changing situations in a variety of different ways. New parents playing with their young baby are establishing patterns of communication and interaction that will last throughout the child’s lifetime. Playing creates a stimulating environment of reaction and enrichment, helping us develop our brains, establish our competencies and manage our emotions. At its most primal level, play is how we first learn to interact and connect with other humans, and how we play as young children helps us develop executive decision-making skills that can stay with us well into our adulthood. Additionally, if we continue to play as adults, whether it’s through competitive sports or just taking the time to have unstructured fun, we can continue to experience the cognitive and health benefits of play throughout our lives.

If humans as a species are hardwired for play because it creates opportunities for learning and social interaction, that can explain why it can be hard to get motivated to go to the gym—because you’re not really playing, you’re simply doing. Exercise or working out is considered a leisure-time activity, and while it’s not really play, it’s often the closest thing that we as adults have to the play of our childhoods. If you find that you’ve been looking for other things to do besides going to the health club, or that you’ve been making excuses for why you can’t make time to exercise, maybe it’s an opportunity to make movement a little more exciting by turning it into your playtime.

If you enjoy playing pickup basketball, then you no doubt should take advantage of the opportunities to play at a 24 Hour Fitness Sport locations. This is an excellent way to achieve the health benefits of play. If you’re not a fan of pickup sports, here are seven ideas for how you can make your exercise time in the gym your playtime by turning your workouts into games in which you compete against yourself or your friends:

  1. Track your distance on cardio equipment and see if each time you can “travel” farther in the same amount of time. Pick a piece of equipment, such as the treadmill, set a time limit like 10 minutes, and then see how far you can walk or run in that ten minutes. At the end of 10 minutes, use your phone to take a photo of how far you traveled. On your next trip to the gym, your goal is to beat that distance. Or, you and friends can be next to one another, set a time limit and see who goes the farthest in that time period.
  2. Go visit a favorite place on earth. No, you don’t need to buy an expensive plane ticket. Look up how far your favorite place is, and then challenge yourself to travel that many miles on a variety of cardio equipment. Most types of cardio equipment have a display that shows distance traveled. Write down how far you go each time you work out until you hit your mileage goal. For example, San Francisco is 501 miles from San Diego; completing an average of five miles per workout means that it will take approximately 100 workouts to “travel” from one city to the other.
  3. Do an AMRAP (as many rounds or reps as possible) and track how many reps you can do of a certain exercise or of a workout in a specific period of time. If doing a workout, the goal is to complete the total circuit of exercises as many times as possible in a specific amount of time. If doing an exercise, the goal is to do as many reps as possible in a certain amount of time, for example, 30 or 40 seconds. Pick a workout like this: push-ups, air squats, TRX rows, step-ups, chest dips. Then select a number of repetitions, like 15, and select a time, like 15 minutes. Now your goal is to complete 15 reps of each exercise and see how many times you can complete that circuit in 15 minutes. Record that number. The next time you work out, try to meet or beat that number. If working out with a friend, push each other to see who can complete the most exercises in the set period of time.
  4. Try a GX24 class at 24 Hour. The gym offers an extensive variety of workout formats that can help keep exercise exciting and engaging for you. A group fitness class is a structured workout—not unstructured playtime—but you’ll have so much fun with the instructor and other members in the class that it will feel like play.
  5. Set a goal for the number of reps you want to complete in a workout and work toward it. If you are goal-driven or task-oriented, you may be motivated by selecting an audacious goal for your workout like 300 repetitions. Track the reps of each exercise you do to work toward that big number, and reward yourself with a little prize, like a new playlist or cup of coffee, for completing the workout. If you select the same five exercises from example two (above) and do 10 reps of each, you will have to do six sets of all five exercises to complete 300 reps for your workout. Tracking reps toward a large goal for a workout can feel like keeping score in your own video game.
  6. Train like one of your favorite football players, with drills used to test for speed, power, agility and strength. A few keystrokes in a search engine bring up the drills and exercises used to evaluate prospective professional footballers that you can incorporate into your next workout. If you want to push yourself a little harder, you can compare your times or scores to this year’s crop of athletes who are progressing from the collegiate to professional ranks.
  7. Train like a strongman (or woman). At some point in your life, you have probably seen an episode of the World’s Strongest Man competition, which seems to constantly run late at night on sports channels. Strongman athletes push sleds, pull cars, lift heavy stuff and carry heavier stuff—all of which are effective exercises for developing total-body strength and burning calories. Many of the larger 24 Hour Fitness Super Sport locations feature open space, sleds, ropes and even tires that you can use to create your own strongman workout.

Play is a chance to have fun by focusing on unstructured, creative activities that can challenge us to constantly make new decisions and react to a changing environment. One important benefit of play for adults is an improvement in cognitive function: Reacting to changing situations can help improve the performance of both the motor neurons that control muscle actions and neurotransmitters in the brain that support brain activities.

Playing games like the ones mentioned above can combine both the health benefits of exercise and play. Re-framing exercise time as playtime can provide an opportunity to unplug, step away from the screen and get rid of some stress. (If you happen to burn a few calories too, that’s a nice benefit.) Just as we each played a little differently as children, we will all be interested in different types of play activities as adults. The important thing is that we find a way to play so we can experience the many benefits of play.

Photo credit: Maridav, Adobe