How Do You Play?

Is it purposeless, spontaneous, an antidote to boredom or loneliness? Does it involve risk, excitement, pleasure or freedom? If so, you play like a child — and that’s good news.

Childhood play has recently become a target of our attempts to help kids be more physically active, but children themselves have a very different idea of what constitutes play. And their perspective could help us help ourselves as well as them.

IMGIn a child’s view, playing has no goal. It is the ultimate in present moment awareness – there is no desired end result – it is an end in itself. That’s one of the take-aways from a new study conducted at the University of Montreal. Other important findings are that risk-taking is pleasurable for children, helping them learn how to cope with life’s unpredictability; that play doesn’t necessarily have to be active; and that they feel ambiguous about scheduled play activities. For both kids and adults, this is a reminder that the social and emotional benefits of play are every bit as important as the physical benefits.

According to Stuart Brown of the National Institute of Play, being playful helps us be more adaptable, leads to trust and benefits brain development. He has studied the rough-and-tumble play of animals, as well as babies’ early play with their mothers. Play is driven by curiosity about the world and each other, and social play is often the glue that holds us together. Brown says that “The opposite of play isn’t work — it’s depression.”

Play can help us be more creative. John Cleese recommends using humor to enhance creativity, because it makes us more playful and relaxed. Brown says that play is a mediator between the brain and the hand. He has observed that design students who can’t creatively solve problems haven’t worked with their hands enough, doing things like playing and tinkering.

In order to “infuse” your life with more play, Brown recommends spending time with children, surrounding yourself with playful people, and looking back at your “play history“. What kinds of play did you enjoy as a child? Can you make an emotional connection between your childhood play and your life now? What is the story you tell about playing?

When I was a child, much of my play was unstructured. I grew up in a big family, and there was always someone around to play with. Because I didn’t have any brothers, our play often involved dress-up and make-believe rather than physical play. We had a music box that played the wedding march, and we would take turns putting on a bridal “veil” and playing wedding. We would take our large collection of “Little Golden” books and make paths around our bedroom with them, or build a fort or tent with a blanket thrown over a clothesline or picnic table. I also enjoyed solitary activities like reading, paint-by-number and crocheting. Our physical needs were satisfied with bike riding and occasional games of softball with the boys next door.

I’m still a fan of make-believe in my preference for dramas and fiction, and my dislike of reality TV. My exercise most often comes in the form of activities I do by myself (running, biking) rather than “team” sports, since I had little of that during childhood. But I try to keep myself open to ways of playing that I’m less comfortable with — partner yoga with my husband expanded my ability to trust; snorkeling and stand-up paddle boarding have helped me enjoy playing in the water; taking more opportunities to laugh and be less serious about life has helped me relax.image

Play is whatever feels like fun and freedom to you: sports, games, puzzles, playing with a pet, laughing at a movie, acting in a play. Play is what makes you feel like your child self again. As George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Creating an oasis

“We become habituated to the familiar, but the familiar isn’t always healthy,” says yoga teacher Felicia Tomasko. Her words might apply to our relationships, our diets, our jobs, or our surroundings. Sometimes we get so used to living in situations that don’t benefit us that we forget there is an alternative. But look around – is your environment helping or hurting you?

Our minds and bodies are one big source of input, and the saying, “Garbage in, garbage out” seems appropriate. If our senses are bombarded by too much noise, tension, unpleasant colors, harsh light and bad air – if we don’t have someplace to serve as an oasis from all that – if we don’t feel safe and comfortable —  the environment will increase stress and contribute to poor health and lower productivity.

The renowned architect and designer Michael Graves says, “I believe well-designed places and objects can actually improve healing, while poor design can inhibit it.” He doesn’t say that lightly. A recent profile in the Washington Post described how Graves was left paralyzed after an illness, and how his experiences turned his work in a new direction. He has first-hand awareness of how the color of a room can lift or sink one’s spirits, or how a lack of accessibility to perform everyday tasks can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. He is now taking on projects that rethink hospitals, senior living centers and housing for wounded military.

We can think of the environment on both the macro and micro levels. The term, “built environment” isn’t a household phrase yet, but it is widely used in the public health community. According to the Prevention Institute, the built environment consists of the “physical structures and infrastructure of communities”; it can encompass how land is zoned, how a community is designed, what kind of housing is available, transportation options and access to green space. The Prevention Institute has highlighted some recent projects that have contributed to healthier communities:

  • Building a jogging path through a cemetery in Los Angeles so that people without a park in their neighborhood would have a place to exercise and enjoy green space
  • Organizing a community to obtain a full-service grocery store in their area
  • Starting a project in Boston for lead-safe backyards for children to play in
  • Turning vacant lots into community gardens
  • Redesigning an unsafe intersection to make it more pedestrian and community-friendly
  • Engaging a community to create murals that improved the aesthetics of their Philadelphia neighborhoodNew York (2)

By changing the macro environment in even small ways, people may feel safer, may be able to eat more healthy foods, may enjoy more social support from the community and may have more opportunity to exercise. When a community buys in to projects like these, and uses the assets it has to bring them to fruition, the first project can often serve as a catalyst for on-going improvements to the environment.

Our micro environments, on the other hand, are sometimes easier, or at least quicker, to alter. With fewer people to please, it becomes simpler to take pro-active steps to create a healthier space. Think about how you feel in certain rooms. Are there particular places that you associate with stress? Are there others where you feel more calm or creative? What is it about the space that provokes those feelings? Is it the activities that take place there? Is it the design or usefulness of the area? Does it feel light or dark, cluttered or spacious? What can you change to make your space more conducive to health and well-being? Some things to consider are:

  • Having sources of natural light and good ventilation
  • Bringing nature indoors – with flowers, a plant, or even a picture of nature
  • Rearranging furniture, or even room uses, to better suit how you live and work
  • Painting your rooms in colors that please you, or calming colors like blues and greens
  • Creating sound that is pleasing – music, water, wind chimes
  • Setting aside a place in the home, even a small one, that is free of work, tension and dissension

Philip Johnson has said that “all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” Even without a great architect, can we create those places of contentment for ourselves?

 

How to take a time-in

My breath slowed as I rolled out my mat and sat down to await the start of yoga class. I looked around at the mostly-young group of people there for the 5 pm class. Had they left work early? Do they have flexible hours? Do they work part-time? Were they going back to work later?

As I silently congratulated all of us on taking time out of the day to do something good for ourselves, I realized that it wasn’t really a “time out” – it was very much a “time in”. It might even have been the most time I’d really spent “in” and engaged all day.

What is “time in”? It’s not just time spent looking inward, though that could be a part of it. It’s time being fully present, and in the moment. It’s time when our brains get a rest from the over stimulating environment that we’re exposed to most of the day. It’s time when we pay attention to our senses, stop multitasking, and regain focus and concentration.

Spending time in meditation, for instance, leads to a restful, yet awake, state where we have more alpha wave activity in the brain. This brings greater mental clarity, fosters creativity and enhances memory. Research shows that regular meditators can stay on task longer and are less distracted even when they are in a multitasking situation.

Less formal meditative experiences happen in yoga, where the sequence of postures commands focused attention, or in exercise such as running, when the sounds of the breath or footfalls become a focal point. Such activities have a beneficial effect on the brain, making us alert to what’s happening in the moment, and sometimes opening a window to better directions or opportunities.

I’m continually surprised by the way that an idea will just pop into my head when I’m in a yoga class or out for a run. Even when I’ve been blocked creatively about something for days, allowing some mental space from it and taking “time in” almost always helps. That must be why companies such as Google, Nike, Ben & Jerry’s and Zappo’s have on-site meditation classes or nap rooms for their employees. Resting the brain can have surprisingly productive results (like new ice cream flavors!)

Being able to bring intense focus and concentration to a project is a necessary element of what is called a “flow” experience in positive psychology. Flow is “a joyful state” that we experience when “we are actively involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills”. During “flow”, we lose track of time and self-consciousness. People who are “high-flow” generally demonstrate better performance, commitment to goals, and greater long-term happiness. Without the motivation or ability to focus, however, high-flow activities seem too hard. We choose the easier low-flow activities (like watching TV) that might provide immediate gratification but don’t really lead to long-term satisfaction. That’s why it is so important to well-being that we strengthen the capacity to focus through “time in” pursuits.

Instead of saying we don’t have time to meditate or exercise, we should be saying there’s no time to waste before starting. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, says that “Our daily decisions and habits have a huge impact upon both our levels of happiness and success.” Maybe today’s decision to spend “time in” will be the start of a recurring pattern for you – one with a far-reaching effect on your fulfillment in life.

The “Habitastic” way to deal with stress

It’s fairly well known that practicing generosity can be an effective way of alleviating stress. Acts of kindness and volunteer work get us out of our heads and out of the “I’m the center of the universe” trap by forcing us to focus on something or someone else for a while. All of a sudden our problems don’t seem so big or overwhelming when put in the perspective of another person’s.

Sweating through a morning of hard work at a Habitat for Humanity home-build this week showed me that there are even more benefits to lending a helping hand on a regular basis. Besides the distraction from our own problems, there is the self-esteem and self-efficacy that comes from learning to do an unfamiliar job and doing it well. I can proudly say that I helped build a roof today, and that feeling of accomplishment helps to dislodge any negative thoughts about myself that might be causing stress.

imageThe hard physical work is also so unlike what most of us spend our days doing that our monkey minds shut off for a while and we are able to stay focused on the task at hand. When operating a table saw or lifting heavy trusses atop a house, keeping everyone safe and doing it right take precedence over worrying about the project at work or the problems of our children.

There’s also the camaraderie of working as a team, whether it’s with perfect strangers, co-workers, or family members. We learn about each other, strengthen existing bonds, and are reminded of the need to be good communicators. Most people very quickly fall into a rhythm of working together for the common goal.

I don’t know what brought all these people together to build a house for an unknown family. There was the young woman getting married in two weeks, stressed over wedding plans, but taking the day to build instead. There was a group of people who work in the same office given the day off for the project. Two sisters, a mother and daughter, people on vacation. Was it for fun, stress relief, a belief in the cause? Does it really matter?

Jacques Cousteau said that, “It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.”

What needs changing?

No one ate many sweets at my New Year’s Day party. Yoga class was packed yesterday. Gyms are full. In other words, a normal January.

Statistics are dismal, though, when it comes to people maintaining their new exercise routines, keeping pounds off, adopting new habits. By the end of the month, most of us will be back to our old, comfortable ways.

That may be because we’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Having a view of the big picture can help us figure out which tree is going to fall today, or which aspect of health lends itself most to changing. Much as you might not want to hear it, maybe exercising more isn’t the thing that’s going to make the biggest difference for you right now.

Michelle Singletary, who writes a personal finance column for the Washington Post, gets it. She wrote a column last week about how better financial health is inextricably connected to physical health, social support and gratitude. She makes the point that health care costs can eat up retirement savings — so isn’t it a good idea to stay as healthy as possible before you reach that point? Are your relationships with family and friends weak or broken? Those are the people you might need if you fall on hard times, so Singletary says it makes sense to keep the ties strong.

In other words, all the dimensions of health — physical, social, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, occupational — help hold the structure of self together, and are equally important if we are going to reach an optimal state of well-being. So while you might want to lose a few pounds in the new year, is your physical health really the dimension where you are most in need of change?

I think of the dimensions of health like a Trivial Pursuit game piece. Each different colored piece of the pie has to be filled in before you can win the game. The same is true for overall wellness. So if you’re already strong with the piece that signifies physical wellness (even if you would like to lose that extra 5 pounds), but you’re struggling to obtain the piece for spiritual wellness, doesn’t it make more sense to focus your efforts in that area?

stick figureIn my stress management class, I sometimes use an activity from a text by Olpin and Hesson to assess balance in the different dimensions. Students get index cards and are asked to draw pictures of their bodies. The head represents the intellectual dimension; the trunk is the spiritual dimension; the arms are social and emotional, respectively; the legs are physical and occupational. If they feel balanced and healthy in a dimension, that body part is drawn so that it is in proportion to the rest of the body. If they feel that they overdo in some dimension, that body part will be outsize. And if there is an aspect of health that is lacking, the body part will look small compared to the rest.

If you do this exercise, are you wobbling from the imbalance? Is one leg shorter than the other? Is your head too big from overthinking everything? Let that be your guide to better new year’s resolutions. Sometimes making a change that no one else can immediately see is the missing piece. As Plutarch said, “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

Step away from the edge

When did we become such an extremist culture? If the word extremist sounds, well, extreme, consider the word moderate and you’ll know what I mean. No one wants to be moderate anymore, or to do anything in moderation. As a culture, we seek out the biggest, the newest, the richest, the edgiest, the most dangerous experience or position we can find.

On reality TV, we see people competing to lose the most weight or be the best chef. Marketers tell us we’ll be left behind if we don’t have the newest phone, and we line up to buy it. College students accept binge drinking as the norm, putting their health, safety and studies in danger. Congressmen put the nation at risk to score points and avoid compromise at all costs. And in our daily lives, our fear of not having every bit of the latest information makes us obsessively check texts and email.

Isn’t the competition exhausting, though? We often talk about managing our time, but not so much about managing our energy. In fact, our energy is a finite commodity too, and we would do well to think about how we want to use it. It’s very stressful be constantly competing, or fighting, or worrying about the meaning of a text message, or subjecting our bodies to excessive amounts of food, drink or even exercise.

Most of us are naturally somewhat competitive, and of course it’s nice to be the best at something, or to set goals for ourselves. But I’m reminded of the saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In some areas of our lives, maybe we’d be happier to not have the best or be the best. Bruno Bettelheim’s famous book, A Good Enough Parent, espoused this philosophy. Instead of striving to be the perfect parent of the perfect child, he advised that parents should be more attuned emotionally to their children so they could understand their relational needs. Instead of trying to mold a child into the one we want, help the child develop into the person he or she wants to be.

A focus on emotional awareness can serve us too, as we try to manage our energy. What do you need for yourself, in body, mind and spirit? Is it the newest phone or the most principled stance on an issue? Or are those things that you could let go? Do you need to lose more weight than your co-worker, or would losing a smaller amount be sufficient for you?

A recent study conducted at the University of Copenhagen showed that moderate exercise was actually more motivating than hard training was. The people who did 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise lost more weight than those who did 60 minutes of hard fitness training. The moderate group said they had more energy and were more motivated to make other healthy lifestyle changes, but those in the vigorous group were exhausted after their workout and less open to altering other habits. They had drained the energy they had for changing.

“Moderate” doesn’t have to mean boring or mediocre. It could just mean that you are using your energy within reasonable limits, for you, at this moment. At some other time, or in some other space, the choice might be different. How can you feel your best right now? Not the best of something or the best at something, but just the best and most content you?

Benjamin Disraeli once said that, “The choicest pleasures of life lie within the ring of moderation.” They’re not always at the edge.

Take it outside

There is joy in motion. It’s that simple. That feeling hit me today when I saw a photo in the paper of people doing Zumba outdoors. Their expressions are exuberant, their energy is contagious.

zumba2

Outdoor exercise has a more free feeling than working out in a gym. Without the confines of walls and machines, something loosens inside. We take more chances, express ourselves more openly, lose some of our inhibitions. There’s also more of a sense of community, because we are physically in the community. And in some cases, the workouts are literally free – free yoga at the farmers’ market, free Zumba on the plaza and free Pilates in the parks.

Besides the individual benefits of outdoor, community exercise, public group workouts can demystify the practices for people who are unfamiliar with them. “Zumba”, “yoga”, “Pilates” – what do those words mean to someone who has never set foot in a gym or yoga studio? They sound like mysterious, esoteric practices that might be difficult and extreme. But when you see other people who look like you doing the moves, you begin to believe that you can do them too.

Americans are full of contradictions. We’re living longer than we did 20 years ago, but with more chronic conditions. Some of us are exercising more, but it’s not enough to keep the rates of obesity from rising. We’re not dying in accidents as much, but many more of us have diabetes. Complicated problems that require complex solutions, right? But while scientists are busy looking for treatments and technologies, we have the power to change our own trajectory. Rediscovering the joy in motion and the freedom of the outdoors can be part of that change.

My mother used to lock us out of the house sometimes when I was a kid. That wasn’t as bad as it sounds. In good weather, we were expected to play outside with other kids in the neighborhood; and if one of us came back in with dirty hands and feet, she wanted to know about it. Playing outside got me out of my head and out of my books for a while. It was during those summertime lockouts that I learned to take risks, like riding downhill on my bike without hands, and to play sports with the boys, and to see just how high we could get the playground swings to go.IMG

What childhood activity brought you that freewheeling joy? Summer might be an ideal time to find the feeling again, either as a way to get a fitness routine going, or to get out of a fitness rut. Look around you – those people dancing in the streets and posing like warriors in the farmers’ market are smiling for a reason.