When kids play ball or make-believe while zipping through the backyard, they demonstrate good, healthy behaviors that parents encourage. But while playing proves natural for younger people, it turns out play is good for adults too, according to DCPA sponsor UCHealth.
“When you think of play you probably have a visual of kids running and laughing through sprinklers, or playing hide-and-seek until the last sunray disappears on the horizon,” said Dr. Robert Moran, who specializes in family medicine at UCHealth. “But play is just the simple act of getting enjoyment out of an activity, any activity you engage in that brings you joy that has no serious or practical purpose.”
Practicality aside, no matter what constitutes as play for you, Dr. Moran said, play has an important purpose in everyone’s life. In fact, he added, doctors have known for a long time about the importance of play on intellectual development, self-esteem, emotional well-being, and social development in children. And now they are starting to understand how important play is for adults as well.
“Play in adulthood is not only important, but essential as it allows us to stay physically active, mentally challenged, interactive, and social,” said the doctor. “Play bridges generation gaps, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds; it helps develop culture, and influences who we are as a society and as an individual; and it aids us in building relationships, can be therapeutic and simply makes us happy.”
It’s when life isn’t all fun and games when the importance of play time becomes apparent. Every person, especially adults, said Dr. Moran, has stressors to face, and learning to play well can give people tools they need to cope. For him, stress reduction through play is “one of the easiest pills to swallow” and can offer a healthy alternative to drugs, alcohol and self-harming behaviors.
“Much has been written on stress and its negative impact on health, and stress has been linked to a number of underlying medical conditions,” continued Dr. Moran. “I have seen firsthand the impact stress has on health, both physical and mental, and it can even increase vulnerability to addiction in some patients.”
So what does play for adults look like? Think a game of soccer in the park, creating a sandcastle at the beach, a bout of gin rummy with a friend, doing improv, or anything else that feels fun, no matter if alone or doing it with other people. Even coloring or drawing, building with clay and some acts of cooking can be considered play; it all depends on how the activity feels and is perceived in the moment. After all, a begrudging game of checkers or violent round of dodge ball isn’t play if you’re not into it at the moment.
Dr. Moran also warned older adults against the lull of retirement and forgetting how to play. Often, he said, people don’t do the things that kept them mentally sharp and physically strong. They stop tending to the relationships that gave them joy and the things that made them happy. They no longer wake up with purpose. In other words, he added, they stop playing.
In Dr. Moran’s family practice, one of the first things he tells someone when learning they are about to retire is to make sure to wake up with a purpose every single day.
“The ones that wake up with purpose and do the things that bring them joy fare much better than those that don’t,” he added. “It turns out there is no age restriction on play and the health benefits are clear. So, my advice is a simple one, play until the final whistle.” And those are the doctor’s orders.