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June 26, 2019

Make Time for Play

by Michael Hughes

When was the last time you played? Just cut loose and played like you were a little kid again?  

Last week, Kennedy and I went to a park and just ran around, going up and down slides, sliding down Sinsheimer’s turf hill on cardboard boxes, laughing and trying new tricks. It was so fun to feel free and unconcerned about anything except the present. As adults, we often take life too seriously and lose a side of us that is free and wild. Being a parent affords many of us the opportunity to get back into touch with play.  

I love thinking about this because a couple years ago we surveyed Gymnazo members and asked which adjective they would use to describe our style of workout. The overwhelming word was “fun.” At first, I was a little disappointed it wasn’t “transformational” or “life-changing.” “Fun” seemed too trivial. Didn’t people take our training seriously?  

Since then, I’ve come to understand the interconnectedness of fitness and play on a whole new level. Fitness without play is less engaging, too rigid and quite honestly, doesn’t achieve the same mental benefits. Fitness is supposed to be fun. In fact, it’s a requirement of our group programming. Programming workouts at Gymnazo actually requires the programmer to factor in the role of play before completing the program.  

As a culture, we idolize games and those who play them competitively. There’s something about competition that fuels society. We love sports. And we love playing games.  

When we have fun, it literally changes the chemistry in our brains and we feel the same kind of freedom I used to associate with being a kid, playing street hockey with neighbors, late into the warm summer nights. Play is vital to our mental health, especially if you experience stress regularly.  

Most Americans (8 out of 10 in a recent study) say they regularly experience a high amount of stress. We know that the compounding effects of stress on our brains lead us to react with a fight, flight or freeze state. It’s the sympathetic nervous system in action. It’s like a primal energy that makes us react to people and situations much like our caveman ancestors did when a predator ran into their camp. In our current society, there aren’t as many true threats to our existence, so reacting to life in this constant state is less than desirable. And yet, so many of us are under constant stress and are in this state of mind more than we’d like to admit.

The quickest way to disengage this response to stimuli is to turn on the parasympathetic system, and one of the easiest ways to do that is through play. Whatever is fun to you, restores you, or brings out the creativity in you, is the thing that disengages your primal mindset and allows you to access more of your executive function (ability to process the world and situation more logically).  

So play more. Rest more. It’s not just about hustling. And it’s not just about pushing hard. There is a time and a place for that, but to grind without a break at anything is neither wise nor sustainable. Just as we program in fun and sports-like movements to incorporate play, we all need to architect the same opportunities to engage with play in our lives.

And so I’ll ask the question again: When was the last time you played? If you honestly feel like it’s been too long, here’s a challenge for you. I challenge you to think about something you enjoy doing, that allows you to be present, brings you joy and activates a side of you that feels free. Now, I want you to pull out your calendar and book time this week to engage in that activity.  

Someone wise said, make sure your values are reflected in your calendar. If you value your wellbeing, give yourself permission to make play a part of each week! Eventually, I’d like you to make it a part of each day, but let’s start where we know we can be successful and build from there.  

Cheers to you and maybe I’ll see you at a local park, reconnecting with your “playful” kid side.

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