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When we were kids, playing was how we developed vital skills, such as social interaction, teamwork and problem-solving. When we grew up, we carried those skills into adulthood, and swapped out play for more serious endeavors. Yet the term "play" doesn't necessarily equate to childishness. It's not solely running around in circles, building forts or chatting with an imaginary friend. As an adult, you also engage in play when you're playing board games, sports, or many other types of activities.
Studies have shown that adults and kids alike should be taking time to play. There's no shame to playing, and the mental and physical health benefits you'll reap are well worth it.
First, though, what is play?
The defining factor in a play activity is free will. When you're at play, you should feel a sort of whimsy because you don't feel a sense of obligation. Ever hear your jam come on in spin class and dance so much on that bike that you forgot where you were for a second? That's play. Chasing your puppy around the dog park without caring if anybody is looking at you? That's play, too.
Play requires mind that's alert and/or imaginative but also non-stressed. All of you competition junkies out there, take note: any time the mind is stressed, you're no longer actively at play. This is why sports can count as play if they're fun and stress-free, but the moment you take it too seriously you're no longer engaging in play. "If you're doing it right, you're not getting overly serious about it," says Dr. Edward F. Group. "Nor should you. It's not the mortgage, it's not a work deadline, it's not a long list of chores that should've been done last week. Not only is playtime not any of those things, it's a vacation from all those things."
Why is play important?
Play is stress-free, and therefore better for our mental and physical health than activities that involve stress. The benefits don't end there. As with children, play helps adults develop social skills and teamwork.
Companies in Silicon Valley were the pioneers of workplace play, embracing fun team outings like go-kart or mini-golf, and now more companies are catching on because of the camaraderie play can build within an office. "We've found that when coworkers can enjoy that type of fellowship and get to know each other a bit as people, it makes the workplace much more fluid," Dr. Group says.
Play can also be good for the mind. There is evidence that suggests that playing games, as well as the commitment to lifelong curiosity, can keep the mind active and even lower your risk for Alzheimer's. One of the few real experts on play, and the founder of the National Institute For Play, is Dr. Stuart Brown. In his book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, he tells us that "movement play lights up the brain and fosters learning, innovation, flexibility, adaptation, and resilience."
The opposite of a play lifestyle is important to discuss as well. When you don't incorporate play into your life, you're susceptible to depression and possibly even stunted brain development.
How can I incorporate play into my lifestyle?
Here's the easy part. As humans, we were born to play. You can make play a lifestyle. "In a broad sense, play is what lifts people out of the mundane," Dr. Brown writes in his book. "I sometimes compare play to oxygen. It's all around us, yet mostly goes unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing."
You can be at play when you're immersed in a great book, playing a fun board game, or horsing around with your dog or children. It seems, though, that of all types of play, the most important is that which involves movement. Take a class that gets you lost in movement and you're bound for a healthy lifestyle. "Movement is primal and accompanies all the elements of play we are examining, even word or image movement in imaginative play," Dr. Brown writes. "If you don't understand and appreciate human movement, you won't really understand yourself at play."
Nutritionist and personal trainer Sophie Gray suggests that "any movement is movement, so go rock climbing, roller blading or sign up for a dance class. You'll work up a sweat and get a workout in while truly enjoying yourself."
"By doing an activity that you classify as playing, you're taking a mental vacation because you're often so absorbed in it, you forget your adult worries," she adds.
Psychotherapist and author Jonathan Alpert says that "whether it is burning calories, getting the blood flowing, or the simple act of not having a sedentary lifestyle, movement is vital. If it is done in a fun way, such as a game with your kids or kickball with colleagues or buddies, it can serve as a good distraction from the stress of work. Further, if it involves a teammate or teammates, it can help forge social connections and build camaraderie. Finally, play is often associated with an earlier time in people's lives; a time when all was right with the world. A blissful youth. That can be a nice diversion from the stress of adulthood."
It's unanimous, folks. The experts tell us the best thing we can do to relieve stress is to get out there and play! Get involved in a class that you love, and the changes to your mental and physical health will be immense.
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