Polar bears do it. So do Nobel Prize winners, romantic couples and fun-lovers in London, Beijing and Lapland. We’re talking about play … swapping your endless to-do list for some spontaneous, giggly downtime. We’ve been watching a flurry of new research that underscores something we both believe in: Serious fun isn’t just for kids. It packs big benefits for your health, mood, mind, job and — most important — relationships.
Best of all, you don’t have to unearth your circa-1968 skateboard to get into the zone. (Oh, you want to? Go for it.) Anything from a silly moment with your spouse to an afternoon walk in the woods to cooking up something crazy in the kitchen counts. As long as you’re floating free, happy and totally absorbed, you’re in playland (and taking a minivacation from deadlines, bills and your crazy-busy schedule).
These days, though, most of us don’t spend enough time in that happy place. All work and no play doesn’t just make Jack (and Jill) a dull boy (girl). It also negates something that’s hardwired into the human psyche, say “play experts” (there’s now a National Institute of Play, a semiannual scientific conference about play and a scientific publication called the American Journal of Play — who knew!). You may have read about a recent dig in Pakistan where 1-in-10 artifacts from a 4,000-year-old city were fun-related. Or heard about a new theory that Stone Age humans were able to hunt, gather and live in groups because they played together in the same way we do today in childhood kickball or grown-up tennis: sharing plenty of laughter, friendly competition and cooperation.
“OK, docs,” we hear you saying, “enough with the history. Bring on the fun.” We hear you, and it’s coming. We just want to hit home how important play is, whether you’re 2, 32 or 92. People who play more live longer, feel happier, think faster and remember more. Taking your first Zumba class, rocking out privately with your air guitar, hiking with your best four-legged friend, taking a girls-guys weekend trip, whatever your bliss is, physical play keeps your brain young. It also eases job strain, connects you with others and makes you laugh (which can make your RealAge as much as eight years younger). And for those who feel like you didn’t get your full quota of childhood fun, it also gives you a second shot.
So how can a busy grownup cut loose and play? Let us count the ways:
Find your inner artist. Haul out that watercolor set, old sewing machine or woodworking tools. As long as you’re having a good time with no high-pressure expectations, it’s play.
Turn your workout into playtime. Try calorie-burners that you loved as a kid — hula-hoop or jump rope (both work off 200 to 380 calories in 30 minutes). Play Frank Zappa or Elvis while you pedal your exercise bike. Turn your walk into a nature hike: Tune into the breeze, the scents, the birds.
Grin on the job. If you’re lucky enough to do work you love, enjoy it to the hilt. Laugh, be creative, get absorbed. When we YOU Docs are collaborating on a book project, we laugh so hard on the phone that our wives have to pick us up off the floor.
Take over the playground. Forward-thinking folks in Beijing, London, Finland and elsewhere are building playgrounds for adults to exercise in. Until we have them, use what you’ve got. Try turning the equipment at your local fun spot into an obstacle course. Climb, balance, swing, slide and repeat! Dr. Mike’s wife, Nancy, believes in play so much that for a 60-plus birthday present, she turned down jewelry and asked for a new basketball backboard and hoop. One alert: Assembling it made surgery look easy! While following DIY instructions exercises your brain, if you decide to do something similar, we YOU Docs probably would recommend buying it fully assembled.
Make sure the kids in your life play too, and join in sometimes. Unstructured playtime builds brains, boosts the connection between you and them, and may lead to healthier eating and exercise habits when those kids are adults. Let ’em run around in the backyard or at the park, then follow their lead.
Rekindle the spark with your spouse. Couples are more playful together than friends, a fact that can get pushed aside by a mortgage, three kids and two car payments. Get goofy together, do the things that used to make you laugh, make time for a foot massage and see where it leads.
The YOU Docs, Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen, are authors of “YOU: On a Diet.” Want more? See “The Dr. Oz Show” on TV. To submit questions, go to www.RealAge.com.