Play: to do things for pleasure, as children do; to enjoy yourself, rather than work; to wield lightly and freely; to keep in motion. Oxford English Dictionary
I consider myself an introvert. I was very shy as an adolescent and young adult, often avoiding conversations with other people unless they were friends or family. However, I could connect with others through sport, dance and play. I was confident in activities which required me to move my body. It’s not a coincidence that I thoroughly enjoy leading group fitness classes where music, dance and playful activities are part of the programming. These elements not only inspire us to move, but also elevate our mood and sense of well-being during these troublesome times.
The uncertainty in our world today is more conducive to anxiety than playfulness, which is why we need to find time in our day for play or joyful movement. Research suggests that playing like a kid, especially when it’s with a group of friends, can enhance our well-being. Once a week I coach a class for men at a city park in Davis which I call Movement, Mobility and Shenanigans. The class is programmed similar to my music inspired Functional Fitness classes, but made more appealing to men by encouraging some friendly competition, and silly, boyish behavior, hence the shenanigans.
For both men and women, the social dynamic of group fitness classes, combined with music, playfulness or joyful movement, can be a mood booster and motivating factor for adhering to the activity. It’s why Zumba has grown in popularity over the years. Music and dance are part of every culture around the world. Some evolutionary biologists believe that music allowed our ancestors to communicate even before the invention of language.
Today, music continues to connect us, and when it’s tied to movement, dance and laughter, it’s a way to express joy and have fun. Coincidentally, I can’t mention fun and joyfulness without mentioning Funshine, a dear friend and longtime participant of our classes. Who better knows than Dr. Funshine that when we play, sing, dance and laugh together, our brains release dopamine, a mood regulating hormone, which makes us feel good and alive! For those that are not familiar with Dr. Funshine’s background as a laughing yoga instructor, check out this article.
Recreational activities and team sports also offer a way to engage in playfulness, connect with others and lift our spirits. When shelter-in-place and social distancing orders were in effect and anxiety was running high during the early months of the pandemic, outdoor recreation was encouraged by county health officials. To keep my emotional health in check, I went on regular walks with family or met up with friends for a run or to play golf.
To this day, I continue to meet up with friends to play golf and slow pitch softball, which hardly count as vigorous activities. However, the true motivating factor comes from the playful activity and the face to face social interaction with friends. According to Dr. James O’Keefe, the director of preventive cardiology at Saint Luke’s Health Center in Kansas City, “Being with other people, playing and interacting with them, as you do when you play games that require a partner or a team, has unique psychological and physiological effects, amplifying the benefits of the exercise.”
Group exercise or team sports might also have an edge over other forms of exercise because they add an element of accountability. Couples who started an exercise program together had a lower dropout rate than those who started one on their own. As Dr. O’Keefe states, “It is often easier to be active in a group, or with family or friends, then it is going solo.” Therefore, whether we’re moving to the beat and in sync with our bodies during Zoom fitness classes or engaged in playful recreational activities outdoors, it all leads to adults living happier, more satisfying, and healthier lives.