Put the Sparkle Back in Your Eyes — Play Your Way to Optimal Health

Play your way to better health

Think back to the last time you played outdoors and laughed out loud like a child, with total abandon, no pain or stress, no guilt or regret about the past, no concerns about the future. Recall a time when you were so totally immersed in play that you lost awareness of any division between you and the world around you. You probably felt awesome in that moment.

In fact, you may remember that time as one of the most pleasurable moments in your life. There’s a reason for that. It just so happens that we are genetically engineered to thrive — physically, emotionally, and psychologically — through play.

Play your way to better health

Play is recuperative and restorative, it reconnects us to the real world and to one another, and it may be one of the key factors that has driven the evolution of higher forms of life over the course of hundreds of millions of years.

Play Through the Eyes of a Polar Bear and Sled Dog

In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, M.D. proposes that our need for play is a biological drive as integral to our health as good nutrition and sleep. And he makes the point that all intelligent creatures engage in play as a way to recharge their batteries and optimize their resiliency.

He illustrates the importance of play by relating this wonderful story about an encounter between a sled dog and a polar bear:

“Hudson seemed to be a very dead dog. That’s what musher Brian La Doone thought as he watched a 1,200-pound polar bear quickstep across the snowfield, straight toward the sled dogs that were staked away from his camp. That November, the polar bears in the Canadian north were hungry. The sea had not frozen yet, denying the bears access to the seals that they hunted from the ice. La Doone spent much of his life in the polar bear’s territory and judging from the appearance of this particular bear, he knew it had not eaten in months. With a skull-crushing bite or a swipe of its massive claws, the bear could easily rip open one of his dogs within seconds.

“But Hudson had other things on his mind. Hudson was a six-year-old Canadian Eskimo sled dog; one of La Doone’s more rambunctious pack members. As the polar bear closed in, Hudson didn’t bark or flee. Instead, he wagged his tail and bowed, a classic play signal.

“To La Doone’s astonishment, the bear responded to the dog’s invitation. Bear and sled dog began a playful romp in the snow, both opening their mouths without baring their teeth, with soft eye contact and flattened hair instead of raised hackles — all signaling that each was not a threat.

“In retrospect, the play signals began even before the two came together. The bear approaches Hudson in a loping way. His movements were curvilinear instead of aggressively straightforward. When predators stalk, they stare hard at their prey and sprint directly at it. The bear and the dog were exchanging play signals with these sorts of curving movements as the bear approached.

“The two wrestled and rolled around so energetically that at one point the bear had to lie down, belly up: a universal sign in the animal kingdom for a time-out. At another point during their romp, the bear paused to envelop Hudson in an affectionate embrace.

“After fifteen minutes, the bear wandered away, still hungry but seemingly sated by this much-needed dose of fun. La Doone couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed, and yet he was even more astonished when the same bear returned the next day around the same time for another round of frolicking with Hudson. By the third day, La Doone’s colleagues had heard about this interspecies wrestling match and his campsite was filled with visitors eager to catch a glimpse of the two new best friends. Every night for a week, the polar bear and Hudson met for a playdate.”

Brown goes on to ask, “What was it in these animals’ nature that was strong enough to overcome hunger and survival instincts? How can two species that don’t interact peacefully read each other’s intentions well enough to roughhouse and play-fight, when any misunderstanding could become deadly?

Lack of Play Contributes to Poor Health Outcomes

As it turns out, this need for play among more advanced lifeforms is evident across the entire animal kingdom, and, generally, the larger the brain, the more playful the animal. That’s no accident — studies have shown a strong association between higher rates of play and greater amounts of postnatal brain growth in primates.

Yes, primates literally monkey around for good reason. And you can observe this same penchant for play among animals ranging from squirrels frolicking in forests to killer whales toying with their food before dinner. In the recent Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher, an octopus (a highly intelligent mollusk) plays with a school of fish, obviously with no intent of harming them, though it easily could have.

The question then is, what’s wrong with us? We’re supposedly superior creatures and the most playful of all known species, yet while other animals are having all the fun, many of us feel stressed about work, school, money, relationships, and what we’re hearing in the news. We’ve become more and more sedentary and isolated, and many of us spend far more time staring at our electronic devices and engaging in digital reality than we do interacting with one another, playing, and enjoying and exploring the far more fun and fascinating real world around us.

This is true of all age groups, from young children to aging adults, and it is literally making us sick. The less we play, the more out of shape, depressed, anxious, neurotic, and disease-prone we become.

As We Age, Life Needn’t be Any Less Fun

Given the fact that only about 30 percent of adult Americans report engaging in physical activity during their leisure time and 40 percent report none at all, it’s no surprise that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data show that about 70 percent of adults 20 years and older are overweight, and about 35 percent of those are classified as obese. Data on the increasing prevalence of suicide is even more alarming, citing a recent 25 to 35 percent increase in the suicide rate, with people over the age of 65 being the most vulnerable.

Alarmingly, according to Dr. Brown’s research, just over the last generation alone, the activity of playing outdoors among our nation’s youth has decreased by a whopping 71 percent. “Unsupervised playground play and free-for-all street play like kick the can and stick ball are diminishing to becoming non-existent,” says Dr. Brown, whose research indicates that a life devoid of play is more likely than not to lead to major health risks, such as depression, a decreased immune system, and stress-related diseases.

Maybe many of us become increasingly sedentary and isolated over the course of our lives because we start to view what used to be fun as work. We describe physical activity as “exercise” or “working out” to express just how burdensome we feel it is, and we must “make an effort” to spend more time with friends and family members. In contrast, as children, our “workouts” were play sessions, and we quickly made new friends and eagerly and effortlessly spent time with them. Life was fun.

As we get older, life needn’t be any less fun, and we needn’t be less active. In fact, as we age and life becomes more burdensome and stressful, our need for play, our need for fun physical activity, increases. It enables us to recharge and refresh our batteries, and it increases our resilience — our ability to overcome adversity, fight infection, and recover from stress and illness.

Tips for Developing a Playful Approach to Life

If you’re interested in incorporating more play in your life, we recommend following the advice of Darryl Edwards. He’s a physical activity, health and play researcher and the founder of the Primal Play Method.

  • Embrace spontaneity: The randomness and spontaneity found in our daily schedules can be viewed in one of two ways — predictable and therefore dreadful, or a gift. If your day is full of predictability, make room for spontaneity. For example, reconnect with an old friend by phone while running errands, or stop for five minutes at some point during the day to snap a photo of something you’d like to reflect upon later or share. Most importantly, however, consider asking yourself — especially during difficult or trying portions of your day — what is the gift in this experience?
  • Turn life into a game: By establishing big goals and associating them with small, incremental objectives, you’ll find that it’s easy to reward yourself for your accomplishments throughout the day, week, month, or year ahead. Known as gamification, when you choose to apply game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts, you’ll find a playful nature associated with life itself.
  • Reconnect with nature: Health researchers like Dr. Brown and Darryl Edwards have long recognized the close connection between exposure to natural outdoor environments and healthy human development. Unless we choose to live somewhere because of its convenient access the great outdoors, we have to be intentional about reconnecting with nature. Luckily, the Internet offers hundreds of websites where people just like you are posting information about local hikes, walks, bike trails, and outdoor activities that all of us can enjoy. If you’re not sure where to start, search for “outdoor activities” and “your town’s name here” using Google.
  • Seek opportunities for flow states of being: In psychology, a flow state is achieved when a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of being focused with complete involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity. When you play, regardless of whether you realize it, you’re often in a flow state, which has the benefit of producing intense feelings of enjoyment.

Here at Restoration Healthcare, we can’t make you go outside to play with your friends, but we can help to restore your youthful vigor, so you’re able to remain physically active and feel more inclined to go outside and have fun with friends and family members. In fact, our mission is to restore hope and optimize the body’s innate ability to heal from within through the compassionate delivery of functional medicine.

Many patients who come to see us have been told by other physicians that there’s nothing wrong with them, or they’re led to believe that their condition is “all in their head” or “just part of getting older.” That’s nonsense. Our bodies and minds are naturally resilient, as long as we provide for their needs.

We have the capacity to remain physically and mentally active and to feel healthy and fit well into our advanced years. So, if you want to have fun and remain physically active, but your body just doesn’t seem to want to cooperate, please schedule an appointment for an evaluation. Let us see if, together, we can set you on your path to recovery and resilience.

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post about the role of play in health and wellbeing, is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from the medical staff at Restoration Healthcare, Inc., nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.