To Get a Better Workout, Play Like a Kid
The perks of making your exercise routine fun
Remember when you were a kid and you couldn’t get enough of playing kickball or tag or jumping on a trampoline with your pals? Chances are, you had to be called in for dinner or bath time, often more than once. As you got older, physical activity probably became more regimented for you, as you focused on time, distance, speed, reps or other metrics. And the fun factor probably became secondary, which is unfortunate.
Increasingly, fitness experts are recognizing the value of embracing a playful attitude toward exercising because it brings numerous mind-body benefits.
“Exercise can and should be fun—that’s how you stick with it,” says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist in Darien, Connecticut, and author of Beat the Gym. Plus, “when it’s fun, you’re going to work out harder and longer and you’re going to enjoy it more. If you’re enjoying the workout, it lowers your perceived exertion, which helps you work harder. You can exercise with a smile on your face and actually get a better workout.”
As proof, consider this: Research has found that adults who enjoyed playing the active video game Dance Dance Revolution played it at a higher intensity and burned more calories during the activity than those who were less engaged with the activity. Another study found that when adults played an interactive video game (the PlayStation 2, Road Fury 2 game) while cycling on an ergonomic bike, they worked out harder, expended more energy, and enjoyed it more than when they did a conventional indoor-cycling session.
“Making physical activity more playful ends up meeting more of your needs than just your need for physical activity—it can bring you joy,” says Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and movement specialist in Sequim, Washington, and author of Dynamic Aging. “Play is often associated with not being aware of how much time has passed, so playful physical activity will help you get more physical activity. You’re likely to do it longer and more often.”
Indeed, research has found that getting a mood boost during exercise is associated with greater adherence to physical activity programs.
And if you incorporate quick stops and starts or move your body in lateral ways (grapevine or side shuffle, anyone?), you’re likely to enhance your balance, agility, and coordination.
“We need variation, especially as we get older,” Holland says. “So many people get hurt because their bodies get acclimated to what they do every day.”
Discovering your personal formula for fun and games
“Anything can be play — it has to do with attitude,” says Elizabeth Lyons, an associate professor in the department of nutrition, metabolism and rehabilitation sciences at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
“Adding an attitude of play is about trying to make things more interesting and meaningful,” Lyons says, adding that it can involve discovery, exploration and spontaneity. ”It can involve discovery, exploration, and spontaneity. There’s something unique about play that brings autonomy—you want to do it for its own sake.”
Throughout his adult life, John Whitty, 63, (my husband) has stayed fit by biking, walking, swimming and doing some strength training. But his real passion is going orienteering, an activity that involves using a detailed map and compass to navigate from point to point along an outdoor course at an organized meet, something he does six to 10 times per year.
“It feels fresh because there’s a lot of discovery and exploration to it and it’s a way to exercise my creativity and problem-solving skills,” says Whitty, a lawyer in Washington, D.C. “Exercise doesn’t feel like the primary focus.”
But in the process of walking or running up and down hills and traversing wooded and rocky terrain for up to two hours at a time, he gets a great workout.
“It’s aerobic exercise,” Whitty says, “and it challenges my muscle strength, endurance, balance, and agility.”
Still, it feels like fun, to him—”like an outdoor adventure more than anything else,” he says.
To infuse your workout with a sense of play, Bowman suggests thinking about “what you like doing with your body or what it is about movement that feels playful to you.” Maybe it’s dancing, roller-skating, playing Frisbee or interactive video games. Then, find ways to bring those activities into your life..
Hopscotch, skip, Hula-Hoop and dance
To stay fit and active, Meredith Kurz, 67, walks regularly and takes swimming, body conditioning, and yoga classes at a nearby YMCA a few times during the week. On Saturdays and Sundays, she increases the fun factor by dancing to Lady Gaga or YouTube music videos in her living room for 20 to 25 minutes at a stretch.
“Because there’s something new to it, it sparks my brain and helps me avoid getting into a rut by doing the same thing every day,” says Kurz, a writer in New York City. “It helps me stay sharp while building fitness.”
When she’s working with her adult clients, personal trainer Anne Marie Solomita, 68, likes to incorporate activities like hopscotch, jumping rope, using a Hula-Hoop, or playing catch with a ball while someone is doing wall squats. This way, “clients have more fun in their workouts while they’re building strength, stability, and mobility,” says Solomita, a retired CPA in Massapequa Park, New York, who works for GYMGUYZ, an in-home and on-site personal training company.
You can even add an element of play to your usual walking routine — by interspersing bouts of skipping or galloping, by dribbling a basketball while you do the locomotion, or by adding balance challenges such as walking along the edge of a curb. Consider stopping at a playground and going across the monkey bars, getting on the swings (which challenges your vestibular system) or a teeter-totter (which is a fun way to do squats), or sliding down a pole (a coordination challenge), Bowman suggests.
Another approach is to gamify your workouts. You could do this by speeding up your walking or jogging pace when you see a car approaching, then slow down as it passes you. Or by using a walking app on your smartphone that will take you on virtual adventures to scenic or historic places, even if you don’t actually leave your neighborhood.
Alternatively, think of playful activities you enjoyed at other points in your life, whether it was playing touch football or H-O-R-S-E on a basketball court or jumping on a mini trampoline. Or maybe it was participating in a themed race or a color run, in which runners or walkers are blitzed with colored powder at various points along the course.
However you choose to infuse your workouts with a sense of fun, “getting more play gets you into a more positive state of mind,” Bowman says. “You feel better while you’re doing it and after.”