Play is usually associated with childhood—but as adults, we’re never too old to reap its benefits.
In fact play is a necessity for both childhood development and a healthy aging process, according to researcher Cale Magnuson of the University of Illinois.
“When children play, they discover what they are capable of. As adults play, they can continue on this path of discovery, gain multiple health benefits, and simply have fun along the way. Engaging your body and mind is the best prescription to ensure physical and mental health throughout adulthood,” Magnuson says.
Benefits of play
In addition to adding a little magic to our busy lives filled with work and routine demands, play enriches life—inspiring growth and liveliness. It provides the opportunity for healthy stimulation that we may not obtain through work and other daily tasks.
Play can also be a supportive tool by helping us create new ideas that we can apply to real-life challenges. And it can help reduce the risk of developing mental impairments.
According to Mental Health Canada (MHC), engaging in intellectually stimulating activities can lower the risk of developing dementia. Apparently these activities trigger brain stimulation, resulting in an increase of cognitive reserves and possibly the ability to contend with or compensate for changes linked with dementia. Play also takes the mind off stressors, giving the body a chance to restore itself.
Physical activity increases energy; strengthens the heart; stimulates endorphins; burns off the hormones, sugars, and fats released in the bloodstream as a result of stress; and improves sleep.
Social activities strengthen personal ties and communities. They help people care for and value each other, and feel part of a positive network. Getting out and being active provides the opportunity to connect with others, develop close relationships, and build on the social skills we already have. Through group activities people must work together and practise skills such as communication, cooperation, and boundary setting.
Positive social connections are also linked to good health. In addition to decreasing the risk for developing mental illness and physical disease, a positive social influence can support health by allowing us to have rewarding experiences, take on meaningful roles, and develop skills to manage life’s challenges.
Make fun a goal
Making fun a goal can lead to sustained benefits. In her research on activity-oriented goals and happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California found that activity-related goals maintain well-being, as people continue to engage in things they enjoy.
“[By] adopting a new life activity … people obtain the potential to generate a steady stream of fresh positive experiences,” she states. And the more the activity is in line with growth and connection, the greater its benefits.
According to Lyubomirsky’s findings, “When goals are self-concordant [pursued because we’re personally motivated to do so] or intrinsic in content [providing us with growth and connection, not money and status], then achieving them produces larger gains in well-being.” For instance, taking part in a regular activity continuously supports our psychological needs, such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
All work and no play
Imagine what it would feel like if you couldn’t socialize with friends, engage in physical activities or learning for fun, or participate in leisurely interests and hobbies.
When we don’t play, we deprive ourselves of a positive outlet for negative emotions that arise from the daily demands of life. A lack of play increases the amount of potentially damaging hormones called glucocorticoids that can impair brain function over the long term—including the destruction of brain cells and memory.
Magnuson says, “To not play puts an individual at risk for many detrimental aging processes. A lack of physical and mental activity subjects individuals to a higher likelihood of developing chronic illnesses.” These conditions include heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity, and osteoporosis.
When we don’t make time to socialize through play, we reduce the emotional stimulation it provides. We miss out on benefits such as a sense of belonging and the emotional support to help us cope with stress. We also experience a decrease in the quality of our important relationships—without fun, all that’s left is seriousness.
It’s difficult to feel fulfilled if we’re not connected through meaningful activities. Play adds personal meaning to our lives. Doing things we enjoy keeps us connected to our needs, leading to greater fulfillment.
Types of play
Be it recreation, leisure, or play … the main thing is to take time away from daily demands and play—whether it’s formal or informal.
For those who enjoy scheduled activities and/or instruction, there are team sports, classes, community events, and special interest groups and clubs. Fees are often involved to cover overhead costs of organizing the activity, including rental space, coaches or instructors, and equipment.
Also known as leisure time, this type of play is informal—getting together with a friend or doing a spontaneous activity alone, such as going for a walk or working on a creative project.
Play is an essential part of survival. It’s important to do things purely for the joy of it, and reap the benefits in the process.
Do things you find fun and feasible—whether it’s a group or solo activity. Remember to consider your physical, social, and emotional needs, and do something to give yourself a boost. Try these ideas to incorporate more play into your life.
- join a dance class
- enroll in a course
- join a sports team
- spend some quality time with friends
- attend a community fundraiser activity
- go to a festival
- learn to play a musical instrument
- join a gym
- go for a walk
- get creative (paint a picture or sculpt)
- challenge your thinking with a puzzle or brain teaser