KAUFMANN: Tapping into the unexpected power of play

Imagine that an organization offered to put your name in a prize drawing, with one stipulation: you had to play for at least 30 minutes over the course of one week. That’s right, play, as in doing something with no agenda other than pure enjoyment. How does that sound?

I was pleasantly surprised when a few weeks ago, our YMCA did just that. During our popular RESET Challenge, the theme of the week was REPLAY, and the mandate was to have some fun. And yes, adults won prizes.

This theme was an eye-opener for me. Adulting is serious business. We work hard to pay the bills, raise our kids, clean the house, and then collapse into bed until the alarm says it’s time to start over. Playtime is for the young and carefree, right?

Thankfully, wrong! It turns out that people of every age can reap amazing health benefits from a little playtime. All we need to do is to unplug from our responsibilities and our devices, and engage in an activity that we enjoy.

We should ask ourselves: “What do I do regularly that brings me joy?” For some of us, coming up with an answer can be a challenge. The honest answer may even be, “Nothing.”

If we find ourselves stumped and saddened by this, we can look to the past for inspiration. Let’s think back to our younger years and make a list of activities that we really loved doing. Next, we can circle the ones that still sound fun, and make a point to try them.

Some of us may be scoffing at this point. Life is hard, some might say; why pretend otherwise? Let’s consider the words of the famous Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Play inspires health and vitality. It gives us a reason for living.

The health benefits of play are wide-ranging, transforming our minds, bodies, spirits and relationships. Here are some of play’s unexpected powers:

Stress relief. Having fun releases endorphins, the body’s “feel-good” chemical. Anxiety lowers, happiness increases, and pain can even be temporarily relieved.

Improved brain function. Playing strategy games, puzzles and other mentally challenging activities can sharpen our minds and improve our memories. Playing games with others can enhance our mood and decrease depression.

Increased creativity. Workplaces like Google have boosted problem solving and team building by installing play areas where co-workers can hang out and interact. This method can work for all of us when we face a challenge: letting our minds relax is sometimes the key to inspiration.

Improved relationships. Laughing and having fun with others deepens our interpersonal connections by encouraging trust, empathy and greater compassion. Also, having a playful state of mind in general can improve our ability to make friends and cope with stressful situations.

So our prescription for better health is a sweet one to swallow: schedule a regular weekly playtime, and keep the appointment. We can play fetch with our dog, fly a kite, or take a bike ride – just for the pure fun of it. Friends, let’s shake off the sadness and rediscover the joy of living.

 

Chrissie Kaufmann is a group fitness instructor at the YMCA of Greater Michiana.

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