Of the many forms play can take, physical activity may offer the quickest path to playfulness. All exercise is good, of course, but it’s important not to take it too seriously — and to remember that recreation, while scientifically proven to be good for you, should also be pleasurable.
“We’ve come to see exercise as a chore,” says Frank Forencich, author of Beautiful Practice: A Whole-Life Approach to Health, Performance and the Human Predicament and founder of Exuberant Animal. Sets, reps, and heart-rate monitors can be great tools, but if there’s no joy at the root of exercise, you’re missing out on many of the mood-boosting, brain-building benefits play has to offer.
There are no absolutes when prescribing play. Some exercisers may find the traditional approach — tracking pounds lifted and distance covered, for instance — intensely satisfying, while others may enjoy incorporating a few of Forencich’s suggestions to make their workouts more playful.
1. Choose Fun Toys
Convergent exercise equipment — such as leg-press and other strength-training machines — has a single function. Divergent equipment — medicine balls, kettlebells, even logs and stones — offers many possibilities. Whenever you can, choose the latter. “Med-balls, Hula-Hoops, and wobble boards inspire exploration, imagination, and playfulness,” says Forencich. “Even in the context of a gym environment, you can get really pumped using these tools.”
2. Generalize — and Switch It Up
We often “take the play out of play” by overspecializing, says Forencich. Committing to one sport at an early age has been linked with overuse injuries, burnout, and inactivity later in life. To keep your favorite sport or your weekly workouts from turning into drudgery, switch gears. Every few months — perhaps with each change of season — change your activity. Strive for general function and fitness rather than mastery of a single activity or sport.
3. Set Limits — But Have Fun Within Them
Unlike kids, adults often have trouble with purely open-ended play. “It’s better to set boundaries and explore inside them than simply to say, ‘OK, let’s play,’” says Forencich. Trying to work your lower body? Come up with as many different ways to perform a lunge as you can (forward, backward, sideways, jumping) and do five reps of each in one minute. Want to hit your upper body? Do the same with pushups. Cardio? Think of as many creative (but safe!) ways of ascending and descending a stairway as you can. (For workouts inspired by primal movements, check out “The Exuberant Animal” and “Animal Flow Fitness“.)
4. Take It Outside
The gym can work fine as an all-purpose play place — especially if it has plenty of open space, opportunities for games, and divergent exercise equipment. But outdoor environments like parks, wooded trails, and beaches offer ever-changing terrain and light, which, like natural play partners, keep you constantly on your toes. “Going outside is pretty fundamental,” says Forencich, who conducted all our movement sessions outdoors. “If you can play outdoors, you’ve pretty well cracked the code.” (Find tips for taking your workouts outside at “50 Tips for Taking Fitness Outside“.)
5. Make It Social
Working out with a group or a partner exponentially adds to the level of complexity — and possibilities for playfulness — of any movement. Rather than carrying a set of dumbbells across the room, try carrying a partner, piggyback style. Rather than pushing a weighted sled, try pushing a partner who’s providing resistance. And whenever possible, to the extent you feel comfortable, include others in your workouts. (For a fun partner workout, see “The Workout: Pair Up for Power“.)