Your Health Depends on Play

It’s the start of a new year, which tends to be a time that we set goals for ourselves around improving our health.  By and large, we consider our eating patterns and exercise regimes.  I don’t think too many folks give much thought to infusing play into their everyday as a means for greater physical health and overall wellbeing.  But, I think we should!  What I know for sure is that we are incapable of being our most vibrant and most awesome selves without play, and fun, and laughter.  And I’m not just talking about our psyche or our emotional wellbeing.  Play has an enormous impact on our physical body as well.

Consider this blog post a general overview (as there is no way to possibly explain all the benefits of play on our physical bodies in one measly blog article).  Please know that throughout the month, I will be speaking with experts in the field to dive deeper into this topic.  But for now, I’d like to consider two categories of which play has massive impacts: 1) Brain Function and 2) Stress Reduction.


Bigger Brains

Play is innate in us; we are adapted and evolved for play.  In fact, it’s crucial to our adaptability (and therefore – our survival).  As kids, play is the primary mode for learning.  Our brains literally grow bigger by playing. And, although it’s way more essential for a child’s healthy development than it is for an adult’s – it has the same effect: play creates strong brains.

Play makes us adaptable. 

Play cultivates creativity and innovation.

Even dopamine levels in the brain increase in anticipation of play.

In an effort to better explain the enormity of just these three statements, let’s explore the consequences of play deprivation.  When we do not play, we become rigid with very fixed ideas.  It can be challenging to think of solutions or “see it any other way.”  When things are rigid, they can’t flex… and our human lives often require a whole lot of flex.  Here’s an example that I find fascinating.  In his book, Play by Dr. Stuart Brown, he explains a study done with rats.  Rats innately play for a stint as juveniles.  An experiment was done which involved two groups of juvenile rats – one group played in their normal rat way, and the other group was inhibited from play.  When a cat-order saturated collar was introduced, naturally both groups of rats hid in fear of the perceived threat.  (Ok, this next part is the craziest thing)…the “play” group of rats eventually came out slowly to explore the scene and see if it was safe.  The group that did not play, never came out.  They freaking died in hiding.  Through play, we learn boundaries, we learn to explore safely, we learn to adjust, we learn how to flex and adapt.

The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.
— Stuart Brown, MD

When I worked at the Office of Career Services at San Diego State University, I vividly remember employers constantly talking about the characteristics they sought in new hires.  And I also recall their frustration, because so many folks seemed to lack these skills: confidence working autonomously, solving problems independently, creativity, innovation, ability to work congruently with a team, aptitude in figuring things out “on the fly.”  There is a reason we lack these abilities…we abandon play as adults.

It is awfully difficult to progress as a species without exploratory play.  We rely on life-changing inventions, and cutting-edge science to survive in an ever-changing environment that poses new threats all the time.  We have evolved to play because play promotes the higher-level brain function that is required to combat these risks.

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"When you are in a state of play, part of your frontal lobe gets unhooked and a lot more associations that are all over the rest of the brain kind of join in like a symphony."

Stuart Brown, MD


Stress is a Toxin in the Body

I know I am not saying anything revolutionary here when I say that the impacts of stress on the physical body are catastrophic.  Beyond the unwelcome feeling stress causes in our emotional state – it has enormous consequences to our health.  And yet, most of us live in a constant state of “fight or flight” (sympathetic nervous) response. 

When the body is constantly feeling stressed

·      Cortisol is up and can damage short-term memory and reduce gray matter

·      The GI slows, and gut bacteria can change

·      Compromised GI weakens the immune system

·      Adrenaline alerts muscles to tense – and can cause pain in neck and back

·      Metabolism can slow (and burn fewer calories)

·      Hormones are impacted, and high levels of stress hormones affect GnRH – the body’s main reproductive hormone

·      Increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease

[Research] suggests that staying positive can lead us to practice healthy behaviors such as a good diet, regular exercise, and getting sufficient sleep.
— Na'amah Razón

So if all of this is true, why do we continually engage in lifestyles that cause stress?  Our society idealizes work and undermines play.  We constantly receive messages that if we want to be successful we must grind, hustle, go, do, achieve, and promote to excel or be seen as worthy.  And for many of us, it costs us our health and happiness.  There are a plethora of studies that now show us that mindfulness decreases stress, anxiety and promotes altruistic behavior. Play is a form of mindfulness.  When you’re playing, you are engrossed fully in the moment (and not worried about the past or anxious about the future).  There’s also some super cool science and research on the healing powers of laughter, which I am excited to dive into more in a later post.  When we slow down and stay present in the moment, we are happier  -- life becomes more than survival.  Please understand that taking a break does not make you lazy, but rather it makes you creative and energized.

When we are play deprived our life becomes rigid, laborious, dull, monotonous… and lacks zest, vibrancy and the presence of joy.  Even more, when life is “all work and no fun” we sacrifice our health.



Photos are of my dear friend Lauren Gardner, taken by Carleen Lana

Cailin Robinson