12 Apr The Impressive Health Benefits of Playing
If you think playing is only for children, think again. The impressive health benefits of playing applies to both children and adults. It’s actually been shown to improve the immune system, support cognitive function, learning abilities, and so much more. In fact, maybe play is the missing piece to your health journey!
What is Play?
Playing can be described in various ways. As defined by Merriam Webster, playing is the act of engaging in sport or recreation. And in many cases, playing is considered to be only a children’s activity. However, in my experience and professional opinion, play is much more complex. So much so, that it is actually quite hard to define, and most definitely not limited to children.
According to Dr. Peter Gray, there are five characteristics of human play. These 5 characteristics help define play more clearly. In Dr. Gray’s opinion (and I tend to agree), play is:
- Self-chosen and self-directed
- Intrinsically motivated
- Guided by mental rules
- Conducted in an alert, yet stress-free manner
This comprehensive and detailed description of play no longer applies boundaries or limitations to age groups, genders, nationalities, etc. According to Dr. Gray and many other experts, play is for everyone. And, play is inherently fun.
The Experience of Novelty
In addition to these five characteristics of play, I also consider the experience of novelty. Studies show that novelty actually has positive impacts on our brain function and ability to learn. Regarding the importance of novelty, Brain World Magazine has gone as far as to say: “novelty is so important to well-being that researchers have identified ‘neophilia’ — the desire to have novel experiences — as a predictor of longevity. People who actively seek out new experiences throughout life live happier, healthier lives.”
The positive benefits of novelty on health and happiness helps explain the importance of play, too. Arguably, the ideas of play and novelty are intertwined and deeply connected. For example, the brain is actually hard-wired to respond to play and novelty similarly. The mid-part of the brain, called the substantia nigra/ventral segmental area (SN/VTA) plays a significant role in learning and memory. Interestingly, this part of the brain is also most influenced by novel experiences. Through play and novelty, the brain actually cues the body to create more dopamine (our happy hormone), naturally leading to increased motivation, improved memory, higher levels of productivity, and advanced learning.
So, how can we prioritize play and novelty in the mundaneness of everyday life?
What are the Health Benefits of Playing?
As we now know, playing yields a long list of health benefits for children and adults. For this reason, I’m a huge advocate of incorporating play on a daily basis, no matter your age. Bonus: play encourages laughter. And, you know what they say: laughter really is the best medicine. When you play regularly, you can reap the following health benefits:
- Reduced Stress- Stress is the body’s natural response to challenges, stressors, and hardships. For most adults, stress is a daily occurrence. Luckily, playing is a natural way to reduce stress levels, as well as its negative health effects) Play regulates the body’s stress response and it’s production of stress hormones, such as cortisol.
- Increased Immunity- Speaking of stress, it is the number one antagonist of your immune system. Stress depletes your immunity, leaving you vulnerable to sickness and disease. So, while play has positive effects on stress levels, it also improves immune function. More so, play provides an opportunity to expand your body’s microbiome. As we know, the gut and body microbiome plays a significant role in immunity. According to one study, children who played outside showed an improved immune response within a month’s time.
- Reduced Risk of Chronic Disease- Reduced stress levels and improved immune function have a positive effect on the risk of chronic disease, such as diabetes, autoimmunity, and heart disease. Play also encourages physical activity, which naturally lowers the risk of developing a chronic disease.
- Increased Creativity and Cognitive Function- Play supports a healthy imagination, as well as creativity. In adults, play can increase critical thinking skills and productivity. For children, playing encourages brain development and learning skills.
- Improved Learning and Memory– Incorporating regular experiences of play and novelty, improves the brain’s ability to learn and memorize, due to increased plasticity. This can lead to higher levels of productivity and skill in the workplace, home, and school.
- Increased Longevity- Neophilia, or having new experiences, is a form of play. It includes learning a new hobby, developing a new skill, listening to new music, or visiting a new place. The increased levels of dopamine, in response to neophilia, has been linked to increased longevity- in other words, longer, happier lives.
In a world that celebrates hyper-productivity and an “all-work, no-play” state of mind, it’s time we make play a priority. Our health, relationships, and jobs might just depend on it.
Ways to Play More Often
As adults, playing might feel like a foreign concept. It often feels like something that has to be earned. You know the saying, “work hard, play hard,” right? So, it’s important to re-frame your thoughts around play. I’m not suggesting that you ditch all adult responsibilities, in order to play all day. But, playing is an effective way to improve your health, increase your productivity, and boost your mood, so it’s time we make it a priority.
At the end of the day, playing can be anything that is stress-less and brings you joy. If you’re not sure how to play, here are some ideas to get you started (you can even do some of these WHILE working or “adulting”):
- Socialize with loved ones or new people
- Lighten up and crack a joke (try puns or dad jokes!)
- Accessorize or try on a new style of clothes
- Try recreational sports (Water sports, team games)
- Enroll in a new hobby or exercise class (and don’t worry about being good at it!)
- Dance while you make dinner
- Plan a game night (puzzles, board games, cards, trivia)
- Dine out at a new restaurant and order something adventurous
- Travel or wander around a new part of town
- Follow the lead of your kids or pets
- Plan a scavenger hunt (or look for “treasure” at a thrift store)
- Alter your room or environment (furniture, lights, decor)
- Surround yourself with lively, playful people
Play is an essential part of your emotional, mental, and physical well-being. And, it’s the easiest way to support a healthy body. So, have you played yet, today?