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The importance of play to wellbeing and weight loss

With our busy, modern lives, and so many of us focusing on work and family commitments, it seems there’s little time left for having fun. We all remember a time when there were fewer responsibilities, and more time for spontaneity with the accompanying carefree, fun-focused attitude to life. But is it possible, or even important to get back to this? Psychologists have long documented the importance of play for children, but there is a growing sense of a similar need in adults. Some experts believe that it is the very thing that is missing today, particularly in our tech-focused lives. Play is our greatest natural resource (and it’s free!) so, it begs the question then, where has all our playtime gone?

As adults, we tend to zone out in front of the TV, drink alcohol or eat junk foods in order to unwind or have fun (see our blog on alternative ways to get pleasure here), rather than engage in creative play like we did once as children. But, just because we’re adults now, doesn’t mean we have to give up on this type of play, especially when the benefits are huge. In fact, if we restrict ourselves by not playing, we are potentially missing out on a whole host of psychological and even physical benefits. Play isn’t just about messing about and having no responsibility (although both sound good!); it can also be an important means to reduce stress and contribute to overall wellbeing, as well as boosting productivity and learning capacity.

It’s a pretty important message: play can have a positive effect on your wellbeing with accompanying mental and physical benefits. So, if you are you looking to lose weight then incorporating play into your daily routine is something well worth doing.

Getting Into ‘Flow’

The key aspect of play is that it is free of any expectation regarding the outcome – in other words, it is simply play for the sake of play. According to psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in California, “What play has in common is that it offers a sense of engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome.” In other words, there doesn’t need to be any point to the activity beyond having fun and enjoying yourself. Sound good? Read on…

The idea is to achieve a sense of being in ‘flow’, where all sense of time seems to ebb away and the individual becomes utterly immersed in what they are doing – so much so, in fact, that they might forget to eat or they may hold off going to the bathroom for longer than normal! This is the same type of experience a child has when playing; they are utterly absorbed in the play. And it is the same thing that Johnny Sexton recently spoke about in a radio interview – he is so passionate about rugby that he almost becomes ‘lost’ in it. It’s a wonderful skill that we could all learn from. In fact, some experts believe that being in a regular state of flow is what makes people happy. Check out a TED talk on this very topic here.

Creativity At Its Best

What is most noticeable about this feeling is that it entails freedom of expression. It is usually when we are NOT abiding by rules, and are expressing ourselves freely and without being conscious, that we reap the most benefits of play. These are the hallmarks of creativity – the process of creating something new can bring about a moment of ecstasy that is so intense that an individual almost forgets that they actually exist. They forget they are hungry or tired, and the problems or stresses in his or her life can be momentarily suspended. It gives our brains a much-needed rest from the constant flow of thoughts (of which experts believe we have anything up to 60,000 each day!!).

Several studies have shown that this type of creative activity boosts wellbeing, reduces depression, improves medical outcomes, reduces stress and heightens your sense of flow of spontaneity. Playing can boost energy and vitality, and may even improve resistance to disease, which makes it invaluable as we get older. Just think of someone you know who is in their sixties or seventies with this playful type of spirit – don’t they seem much younger than their years?

Play is more than just important for creativity, it’s often actually necessary. When we don’t embark on activities that involve play and fun, being creative becomes a challenge. In one 2010 research report, researchers Paul Howard-Jones, Jayne Taylor, and Lesley Sutton explain how allowing students to first have time for play (10 minutes with playdough) before conducting a creative or standard task enforces better output and more creative ideas.

The research shows that play-like activities put us into a psychological state where it’s acceptable to fail, which allows us to freely explore the unknown. This removes limits that otherwise constrain us and allows us to be more diverse in our thinking and creation. In fact, a playful mind thrives on ambiguity, complexity, and improvisation – the very things needed to innovate and come up with creative solutions in today’s world.

Improving Relationships

Play can be carried out on your own, or with a partner, friend or colleague – when carried out with another person, the beneficial pay-offs can include improved bonding and communication (hence those work ‘away days’ which, if organised well, can have a significant impact on team spirit and even productivity). That’s why research backs up the theory that ‘couples who play together, stay together’.

Being a playful adult may even make us more attractive to the opposite sex, according to one study from Pennsylvania State University. Researchers there asked 250 students to rate 16 characteristics that they tend to look for in a long-term mate. ‘Sense of humour’, ‘fun-loving’ and ‘being playful’ ranked high for both sexes. Lead researcher Gary Chick believes that the attraction to playfulness is rooted in evolution and what we see as important in a possible mate; “In men, playfulness signals non-aggressiveness…while in women, it signals youth and fertility”.

Play doesn’t have to be a specific activity; it is also a state of mind. Breaking the ice, even in a business or work situation, can go a long way in helping people to loosen up, which is often when they deliver their best work. Or think about having that chat at the person beside you in a queue – this more playful approach to life doesn’t just benefit others, it makes you feel good too.

The Three Top Reasons That Stops Us Playing?

  1. Not enough time’: unfortunately, even as young adults, we’re encouraged to put ‘childish things’ aside, but it turns out that this might be to our detriment. We also have other reasons – the endless work responsibilities, home responsibilities, sick or dependent parents – the list goes on. The mistake most people make is they think they need huge blocks of time for these activities or, for want of a more ‘grown-up’ word, these opportunities to ‘play’. In fact, many people save all their playtime for that two-week holiday just once a year, when the reality is it’s important to fit some playtime into our everyday lives.
  2. ‘It’s just not me’: we also tend to restrict ourselves with play, perhaps because we don’t feel ‘free’ enough in our minds to literally ‘let go’ and play. As adults, it’s so ingrained in us to ‘play by the rules, but sometimes to a fault. Being self-conscious and restricting play may mean you fear refection or ridicule when attempting to play. This really plays true in the bedroom, where inhibitions can create a situation where even a couple who are married for many years still fear rejection when it comes to sex so they fail to initiate or to be more adventurous. But according to Brown, “Play is a basic human need as essential to our wellbeing as sleep, so when we’re low on play, our minds and bodies notice.” This explains the much-needed boost that a couple can get from ‘playing’ within the realms of their sex life – dressing up in outfits or ‘role play’ is just another way to play.
  3. Being too focused on technology: we are all guilty of having our phones to hand every second of the day. In fact, since the invention of smart phones, experts say they are now seeing a new type of addiction – to technology. This takes us away from free, creative play, and has actually been shown to even diminish the right part of the brain – the centre for creativity and emotional intelligence. It may be uncomfortable to admit, but we also need to be particularly wary of the amount of screen time our children are getting with this in mind. Excessive screen time (including gaming) appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which undergoes massive changes from puberty until the mid-twenties. Frontal lobe development, in turn, largely determines success in every area of life – from wellbeing to career success, and even including relationship skills.

So How Can We Tap Into Our Inner Child?

Often adults can’t even remember what they like to do – it’s been that long. So the first step is to take a sheet of paper. List 20 things you enjoyed doing as a child. It could be anything. Don’t restrict it. Write freely. It could be roller-skating; collecting stamps; playing football; playing ‘make believe’, going on ‘adventures’, having picnics, riding a bike; riding a horse; playing basketball; reading, playing a musical instrument, dancing to great music and so on). Ask yourself when was the last time you gave yourself permission to do any of these? Next to each one, write a rough date (ie. the year). Don’t be surprised if it’s many years. Now it’s time to change this. Pick just two from your list and look for small pockets of time when you could do them – even just 15 minutes is a start. Stop looking for huge ‘blocks of time’ – small windows is enough…and, with a busy life, it’s way more realistic. This way you’re allowing yourself some ‘playtime’ as opposed to the zero you are currently experiencing!

Other ideas include day-dreaming, dressing up at Halloween (or for fancy-dress parties), doodling with colouring pencils, playing a boardgame, playing Frisbee, flying a kite, dancing to a favourite song or making a sand-castle on the beach – you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy these! Read some more ideas here, including how to schedule play-time and how to create a ‘play drawer’ that will inspire you.

Another idea is to simply build more fun into everyday activities – for instance, get all the family to help with dinner and turn on some music to lighten the mood. Or put up a table-tennis table in your back garden or garage (or even a darts board) for some light entertainment while dinner is cooking. Injecting fun or humour into everyday things will ultimately lead to you being a happier parent, spouse and partner.

Get back to enjoying things without a purpose or a goal – for instance, it doesn’t have to have the aim of education or learning but, instead, it is something fun or pleasurable with the focus on the actual experience, rather than ‘achieving’ something. So, therefore, play includes the enjoyment of art, books, movies, music, comedy, flirting and daydreaming. Ask yourself how often do you enjoy any of these and if the answer is ‘not often’, then how could you start building some back in?

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