The Power of Play

Harness the potential of play and dive into the mental and physical benefits of having fun.

By Mae Jacobson

Once considered a pastime reserved for the recess crowd, play has grown up in a big way. Recent studies show that pure and simple fun can improve your adult life by relieving stress, improving brain function, strengthening social connections, and more. But returning to your playground days—or at least regaining that feeling of uninhibited joy—can present a challenge to the modern adult. At the WAC, we can help.

There’s no hard and fast definition of play, but as long as you’re doing something just for the fun of it, you’re probably playing. That might seem like a foreign concept in a world where being busy is a hallmark of productivity. But without play, some of that hard work may go to waste. Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play, says that active play builds complex and skilled individuals who experience more rewarding social interactions, curiosity, and innovation in their day-to-day lives. And science backs him up.

Dr. Brown’s research shows that those who don’t play are often depressed and ultimately less creative when it comes to tackling problems at the office. So it turns out there is some truth to the old adage: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

This spring and summer, take a break from work and make time for fun—we think you’ll see some very real benefits. That’s certainly been the case for WAC Chief Financial Officer Paul Lowber.

With his crisp blue shirt, tastefully patterned tie, and soft-spoken demeanor, Paul might not strike you as the playful type. Taxes and accounting don’t exactly scream “fun” for most people. But crunching numbers isn’t what first brought Paul to the WAC. It was basketball.

Paul joined the WAC in 1997 for the purpose of playing in the Club basketball league. At the time, he was working as vice president and controller at Safeco Corp. in the University District and wanted a way to keep playing his favorite sport.

A youthful smile spreads across Paul’s face as he recalls his early days shooting hoops. “I had three older brothers, so I had to round out the team,” he says. “Basketball has been with me since day one.”

Paul learned to play inside his family’s barn in Monroe and took his love for the sport with him when he moved away. For Paul, it was never about using the sport to achieve an end goal. In fact, he passed on a basketball scholarship offer. “I didn’t like to practice,” he says. “I really just wanted to play. Basketball lets me blow off steam and relieve stress. I feel sharper when I play—physically and mentally.”

‘A playground feel’

The mental acuity that accompanies exercise is a well-known benefit of physical fitness. The key to harnessing that brainpower is finding something fun you can do every day, or at least a few times a week. That’s where play comes in. Evidence shows that when you do something you love for fitness, you’re more likely to come back.

Instead of working out because you feel obligated, find something active you enjoy.

“Medicine balls, battle ropes, boxes, sleds, and cones are just a few things that can be incorporated into a workout to inspire a playground feel,” says Women’s & Coed Fitness Manager Maureen Eggers. “Two or more people can use these pieces in cooperation to add excitement and encourage harder effort.”

Darryl Edwards, author and founder of Primal Play, has dedicated an entire movement to these kinds of workouts. Burnt out by almost two decades in investment banking, Edwards decided to change his lifestyle and help others do the same—all with play. His methods include everything from jumping like a kangaroo to arm-wrestling while standing on one leg.

Sound silly? That’s the point. By asking adults (and children) to let go of their inhibitions and rediscover the joy of movement, Edwards has created a functional way to just have fun—something he considers deeply ingrained and needed in humankind.

“Play is part of our inherent nature,” Edwards says. “Tapping into those basic human directives gives us benefits we can’t even begin to understand yet.”

Edwards encourages his clients to create an environment of inclusivity that everyone can enjoy equally. This allows participants to work together in new ways that promote team building and social interaction. For example, a very skilled tennis player and a beginner can agree to make a game out of their match by trying to achieve the longest rally possible. The result? Both players are rewarded by engaging in the game and working together to keep the fun going.

“Play is not necessarily always the activity,” Edwards says. “It’s also the attitude.”

Mind and body benefits

As fitness trends such as Primal Play continue to grow in popularity, academics across the globe are working to understand the benefits that Edwards and others profess. Since 2014, play researchers and advocates have gathered at South Carolina’s Clemson University for the yearly Conference on the Value of Play. Attendees from a diversity of disciplines—from health science to landscape architecture—come together to showcase their latest research and discuss how play benefits the body and mind.

Dr. Anthony T. DeBenedet, a speaker at this year’s conference, has dedicated a whole book to the subject, Playful Intelligence: The Power of Living Lightly in a Serious World. The book draws on personal anecdotes and research from a range of disciplines—economics, neuroscience and more—to explain how maintaining a playful personality in the face of adulthood stress can improve your well-being in profound ways.

DeBenedet identifies five “qualities of high value” that influence happiness—imagination, sociability, humor, spontaneity, and wonder. His list is strikingly similar to the traits nurtured by fitness trends such as Primal Play. According to DeBenedet, adults who exhibit and exercise these qualities of high value enjoy less stress, better interpersonal relationships, and higher career contentment.

“It’s not about taking life less seriously,” he writes. “It’s about taking ourselves less seriously.”

So sit back, relax, and rediscover the magic of play. After all, it’s good for you.

—Mae Jacobson is Associate Editor of WAC Magazine. Reach her at mjacobson@wac.net.

As published in the May/June issue of WAC Magazine.

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