We played before we started working out.

Play is our natural state. It’s perhaps one of the most innate forms of human expression, growth and creativity. We are created to play and in turn created by it.

Dr. Stuart Brown, author of “Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul,” shares, “The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.”

Yet many of us are taught early on that play is frivolous, a distraction that wastes precious time.

But how’s that working, really? How hard do we tend to work at things we enjoy doing as compared with the things we dread doing?

Where did we get the notion that the health club is a sacred temple where we have to sacrifice fun and enjoyment on the altar of exercise progression?

Make enjoyment part of working out 

Exercise is simply what happens when we challenge movement. It’s what we did most naturally, what we engaged in most tenaciously before we were told to sit down, look forward, and be seen and not heard. Do you remember how hard you would negotiate, protest and scheme just to keep playing, keep moving, a little while longer when you were a child?

The reframing of “exercise” into movement-based play may well be one element of creating an environment where exercise becomes something we get to do rather than have to do.

In case you think play is a frivolous distraction from the achievement of your goals, keep in mind that it can reduce stress and belly fat by lowering cortisol. It can mitigate pain through the release of endorphins. It boosts immunity, and there’s evidence it can help prevent heart disease.

Both enjoyment and movement activate the reward centers in the brain, which means they elevate dopamine, creating a powerful pleasure cocktail. Dopamine is involved in voluntary movement, motivation and attention—processes that are useful in areas of our lives extending beyond the doors of our health club.

If you look at the data, it’s easy to see that challenges concerning exercise adherence are widespread. Enjoyment can be a highly effective antidote as it decreases the fear and anxiety associated with exercise by lowering our stress hormones. Further, because of the effect it has on the reward pathways and the elevation of dopamine, play makes exercise its own reward.

What would change in your workouts, not to mention your life, if you bargained with yourself the same way a child bargains with his or her parents to just play a bit more?

Make Your Workout a “Playout”

By Meagan McCrary

Play boosts our mood, fosters empathy, enhances connections, renews optimism and cultivates openness. Brown believes play is at the very core of creativity and innovation. We find play not only pleasurable but also energizing; it helps us preserve and refuel while having fun. We were designed to play (in other words, we function better all around when we incorporate play into our lives).

Rather than a single, rigid definition for play, Brown proposes seven properties of play to help us better understand and determine what it is for each of us.

Play is purposeless. You do something just because you enjoy doing it, for no other reason than you want to do it because it’s fun. You play for the very sake of play.

Play is voluntary. It is not required, nor is it another item to add to your to-do list. You enter into play freely or it isn’t play. (Remember the “poor sport” who didn’t want to play but played anyway, ruining the game for everyone?)

Play is inherently attractive. You are naturally drawn to play because playing feels good. What constitutes play may be different for each person. Play is whatever you like doing, whatever is fun or stimulating for you.

Play suspends our sense of time. You lose track of time when you are engaged in meaningful play. You become immersed in something you enjoy doing and so present in every moment that time flies by.

Play elicits diminished consciousness of self. In other words, you stop being self-conscious when you’re playing. You’re no longer concerned with the way you look or what others might think of you; in fact, you stop thinking about yourself at all.

Play has improvisational potential. When you’re doing something freely for no other purpose than you enjoy doing it, there are no rules or constraints. Play by its very nature is improvisational, allowing space for imagination and creativity to flow into new territory.

Play produces continuation desire. Whatever play is to you, you don’t want to stop playing. Play is pleasurable, so naturally you want to keep having the experience. You may even improvise or change the rules just to keep playing. (Remember pretending not to hear mom calling when it was time to come in?)

So what are some things that could be considered play? I think of laughing and goofing off, just being silly, playing around with the dogs, hanging out at the beach, going for a car ride with no destination, dancing and moving freely.

Your play could be active, like surfing or rock climbing, or it could be more passive, like cooking or reading. You may get lost on a walk in the woods or nesting in your own home. Whatever you enjoy doing, whatever you get lost in—scrapbooking, tossing a ball around, gardening, playing cards, building a sandcastle with your kids—is considered play for you.

The only stipulation for cultivating play is that you must be actively engaged, meaning you can’t be distracted or only half in; playing requires your full attention and participation (which can be hard to do when you’re trying to post a photo to social media). Yet another reason and opportunity to put down our phones and unplug from our many distracting devices.

Homework: make a play list

Take a moment to jot down a few play activities. You may notice you play more than you think or that you haven’t played in a while.

Then make play a priority, pencil in playtime and hold yourself to it like any other appointment. Look for ways to squeeze playful moments into your day. For example, I love singing in my car.

Don’t forget to play with other people as well. Find activities you can share with your partner, family, friends and even coworkers. Play builds connections, improves communication and strengthens bonds. Plus, it allows you to share things you love doing with people you love.

After all, it was Plato who said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

Photo credit: oneinchpunch, AdobeStock