When we talk about “playing,” what do you picture?
Unfortunately, a lot of people think of playing as something that only kids do.
The truth is that play remains vitally important for your health throughout adulthood and even into old age. And it’s a topic that more and more health professionals are beginning to turn their attention to. As it turns out, play is absolutely critical for our mental, emotional, physical, and social well-being.
So what is play? It’s not really about what you do; it’s about how you do it. Openness, creativity, spontaneity, fun, exploration — these are all basic components of a playful attitude.
People who retain the ability to play are much more likely to live happier, healthier lives. Don’t believe us? Just take a look at these four proven benefits of making time to play as an adult.
Better Mood Regulation and Stress Reduction
One of the most obvious positive effects of play is the release of endorphins. Everyone is familiar with the euphoric effects of endorphins, often associated with exercise, sex, and certain foods.
Laughter is an especially strong trigger for the release of endorphins like dopamine. But don’t think that the effects of laughter stop at just feeling good. Endorphins are powerful natural stress reducers, and reducing stress has profound effects on your health (physical and mental) as well as longevity — especially via reducing inflammation and keeping blood pressure in check.
Effective mood regulation and stress reduction are vitally important, and they can have a major ripple effect on your entire life, affecting virtually everything you do.
Research suggests that encouraging play at work can even have a strong positive effect on performance and productivity. The smartest and most successful companies (like Google) understand this and take advantage of it every way they can, actively making their workspaces fun to promote creativity and avoid burnout.
Better Physical Fitness and Lower Injury Risk
Do you have trouble sticking to an exercise plan? If so, you’re not alone — a majority of people admit to not getting enough exercise.
Part of the problem is that many people schedule activities they don’t enjoy as exercise. If you set a goal to spend an hour on the treadmill four times a week, don’t be surprised if a month or two later you find yourself inventing every excuse imaginable to skip your workouts.
It’s basic psychology — you may be able to force yourself to do something you hate for a while, but eventually you’re going to lose that battle.
From martial arts to adult volleyball leagues to playing with your dog in the backyard, you have no end of choices for a more fun, playful, spontaneous approach to exercise. Notice that all of these options have a social component as well, another important factor that we’ll explore below.
Another major advantage of this type of exercise: it helps you maintain your balance, agility, and ability to respond to the unexpected — things the treadmill won’t help you with. These attributes are important for everyone, but even more so as you get older.
Stronger Social Bonds
No discussion of physical and emotional wellbeing is complete without talking about social bonds. Play is the number one way we bond with other people as children, and despite the fact that we tend to let this go as we get older, it’s still one of the most powerful ways to bond as adults.
This is another thing that you’ll notice smart companies taking advantage of, in the form of “team building” outings away from the workplace.
Bringing a playful attitude to everything you do will help you build and strengthen social bonds at all levels— whether it’s creating new friendships, strengthening existing connections, or maintaining the vitality of a long-term relationship. Strong social bonds are a critical aspect of maintaining mental and physical health, and they’ve even been found to have a positive effect on lifespan.
Improved Brain Health
“Brain games” have gained popularity in recent years as a way to stave off Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of progressive dementia. A lot of the research on brain health seems to focus on the positive effects of games that rely on memory recall.
But stress reduction and creativity, two of the fundamental characteristics of play, also appear to have a potentially profound effect on long-term brain health. This can include anything from artistic pursuits — like painting or playing an instrument — to simple socializing. Like we said before, play can really be anything. It’s all about the way that you approach the things you do. And with all of the immediate and long-term benefits, maybe it’s time you started getting more serious about playing around.