Playtime and Your Health

Why it’s time to prioritize fun

Mother and child practicing yoga and playing
Tim Kitchen / Getty Images

While America isn’t short on sports fans, many of us prefer to sit on the sidelines, munching on chips and dip while watching an activity on television or in a stadium. We’ve become a nation of armchair athletes—and when it comes to our health, we’re not on the winning side.

Today, 80 percent of all death and disability is caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, including inactivity and a poor diet. The United States is the most obese and overweight country among developed nations in the world; currently 70 percent of Americans are either obese or overweight.

America is 43rd in the world for life expectancy. Statistically, “Born in the USA” today means having a shorter life expectancy than your parents. By 2050, Americans will have lost $100 trillion due to lifestyle-related diseases, according to a report by the Milkin Institute.

One reason for the dire statistics is our lack of physical activity—an “inactivity pandemic,” as it’s been called. Eighty percent of American adults don’t meet the government’s physical activity recommendations of at least two and a half hours of aerobic activity each week.

Take some time out to watch young children at play; it’s effortless, intuitive, and joyful. However, research shows that around the age of nine, children become more sedentary. Those sedentary children then become sedentary teenagers and eventually sedentary adults with long to-do lists that seldom include exercise.

As adults, we no longer place value on activity for activity’s sake—moving for the sheer joy of it.

The Olympic philosophy sought to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort. Young children have that joy; their play is effortless and natural. Athletes have that joy; their play is conditioned. For all other adults, play is learned.

Strive to return to that innate drive to move your body for the purpose of having fun.

“Play” can easily be dismissed as childish behavior. But activity that we enjoy keeps us moving and brings us additional benefits that can help both body and mind. Exercise that today might seem elusive can then more easily works itself into your everyday life.

Seek Activity That Brings Joy

Physical effort doesn’t have to mean organized sports, spin classes, or Zumba.

What kind of physical play speaks to you? Wherever and whenever you feel it, do that.

Haven’t played basketball in years? Throw a few hoops. Go the park and take your dog for a long walk. Play tag with your kids. Dance to your favorite song in the kitchen. You never forget how to ride a bike; take it out for spin.

The challenge laid out for all of us is obvious. A sedentary lifestyle is now the norm, not the exception. You have the power to reverse that. While no one can change a lifetime of habits overnight, you can begin to get active right away—and all that takes is moving for the sheer (at least primary) purpose of putting a smile on your face.

It’s Not All or Nothing

“But I don’t have time,” is the most common excuse for not staying active. It’s a fact that we’re all busy with work, with family, with life, but we usually manage to find time for the things we like to do.

Just as you might make time to watch Sunday football or catch up with a friend, add that moment of play you used to enjoy so much back to your life.

Physical play, whether it’s organized sports, gardening, or running through the sprinkler with your children, produces a collection of happiness influencers: dopamine, serotonin, endocannabinoids, oxytocin, endorphin, GABA, and adrenaline. These trigger feelings of reward, confidence, bonding, bliss, painlessness, calmness, and energy, making you want to feel that again. Not surprisingly, these are found at higher levels in healthy people who not only move more, but play more.

Suddenly, staying active is far less the chore than you once considered it.

In 1960, President John F. Kennedy said:

“…the physical vigor of our citizens is one of America's most precious resources. If we waste and neglect this resource, if we allow it to dwindle and grow soft then we will destroy much of our ability to meet the great and vital challenges, which confront our people. We will be unable to realize our full potential as a nation.”

Doing this may be difficult at first, but it’s easier when your activity is, first and foremost, play. Watch children at play and you can see the joy in their effort. Emulate that and tell yourself. It’s not childish—it’s healthy. 

Jeff Olson, RLT serves on the True Health Initiative Council and is a two-time Olympian, three-time national champion, and a Pan American gold medalist.