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Play Out, Don’t Work Out

Play your way to a happy, healthy, and long life.

Getty Images, Licensed for free use
Source: Getty Images, Licensed for free use

Usually when I write or speak about play it’s about children’s play; about how children learn and grow from play and how we as a society are harming children by depriving them of the play they need for physical, emotional, and intellectual well-being. But a few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a group of over-fifties who call themselves “Bloomers.” They wanted me to talk about the value of play for adults, especially older ones. What follows is a modified form of a portion of that talk.

Physical exercise is good for us. We pretty much all know that. The evidence is overwhelming and well-publicized. For a good summary, see the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2018) booklet Physical activity guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition, which can be downloaded free, here.

As documented there, increased physical activity lowers the risk for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, many types of cancer, dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease), anxiety, depression, sleep problems, obesity, bone loss, bone breakage from falling, and many other things that none of us want. Here’s a simple way of thinking about it: Exercise builds the body—all working parts of the body. Without exercise, all parts of the body (except the layers of fat) atrophy.

A considerable amount of research indicates a dose-response relationship between amount of physical exercise and health, such that the more physical exercise we get, the better our health, on average, will be. The recommended minimal level of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week is way better than none, but more is better yet (Wen, 2011). I suppose there is some upper limit—we obviously need rest, too; but I don’t know of any studies that have explored an upper limit.

The fact is, despite the well-publicized evidence that exercise is good for us, relatively few Americans exercise even the minimal recommended weekly amount of 150 minutes. There are many reasons for this, but my hunch is that the main reason is, as a society, we have come to think of exercise as work—as something unpleasant, that we should do rather than want to do. We talk about working out. What a terrible concept. That concept is often reinforced, in the many articles advocating for more exercise, with pictures of people lifting weights, or operating exercise machines in a gym, or running around a track, or swimming back and forth in a pool. How tedious.

My suggestion here is that we change the term for exercise from working out to playing out. The only way most of us are going to exercise more than we do is if we come up with ways of exercising that we really enjoy—things that leave us wanting more rather than less.

I recently came across a research study that examined the health benefits of different forms of exercise. It’s a long-term prospective study, conducted in Copenhagen, that compared the life expectancies of people who engaged regularly in specific forms of physical activity during their leisure time. The major finding was that people who played tennis or badminton as their primary exercise lived on average five years longer than those who jogged and 7.5 years longer than those who worked out at a health club. Those who worked out at a health club lived, on average, only 1.5 years longer than those who by self-reports engaged in no regular exercise (Schnohr et al., 2018).

I can imagine various possible explanations of this finding, but the one that seems most likely is this. The tennis and badminton players got their exercise from doing something they loved to do. This was their play, so they did a lot of it. The joggers and the people exercising at a health club were, more often, doing something that was more work than play. They were exercising because they knew it was good for them, not because they really wanted to do it.

Our human nature, no surprise, is such that we engage much more often and for longer times in voluntary activities we enjoy than in those that we don’t. My guess is that the tennis and badminton players lived longer not because tennis and badminton provide better exercise (though that is possible) but because they simply spent more hours at their play than the joggers spent jogging or the health clubbers spent exercising at the club.

Another factor is that happiness itself promotes longevity (Lawrence, 2015), and my bet is that the tennis and badminton players were happier than the joggers and weightlifters. (Hey, if you love jogging keep at it, that's your play, but my experience is that most of the people I see jogging don't look happy about it.)

Playing out rather than working out improves mental health as well as physical health. Play, by definition, is something we like to do. It adds joy to life, and mental health, by and large, is the experience of joy. Play reduces depression and anxiety. A life without play, almost by definition, is a life of depression.

I’m very lucky. I’ve been playing outdoors my whole life, and as I get older (I’m now 77) I find that I have ever more time for such play. In my last post I described vegetable gardening as a form of play that I love and has been shown to increase longevity. I also enjoy long-distance bicycling, kayaking, swimming in the river behind my home, chopping wood for our wood stove, and, in winter, skiing on woodland trails within walking distance of my home. These are all forms of play for me. Combining all these and more, I’m pretty sure I average at least 20 hours a week of moderate to vigorous exercise, all of it outdoors. That’s eight times the recommended minimal amount. The discipline problem for me is not that of disciplining myself to exercise but disciplining myself not to spend all day at these enjoyable activities, so I can get some other things done that I consider useful.

If you haven’t been getting as much exercise as you would like, think about ways of playing that you enjoy (or might enjoy if you tried them) and that involve moderate to vigorous physical exercise. Ideally, these should be ways of playing that are readily available to you, that you don’t have to spend much or any money for or travel to get to—things that are convenient as well as fun so you can work them into your regular daily schedule. When I lived in a crowded city, years ago, my most common forms of outdoor play were necessarily quite different than those I favor now in my semi-rural environment, but no less fun or health-promoting.

And now, what do you think about this? … This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your questions, thoughts, stories, and opinions are treated respectfully by me and other readers, regardless of the degree to which we agree or disagree. Psychology Today no longer accepts comments on this site, but you can comment by going to my Facebook profile, where you will see a link to this post. If you don't see this post at the top of my timeline, just put the title of the post into the search option (click on the three-dot icon at the top of the timeline and then on the search icon that appears in the menu) and it will come up. By following me on Facebook you can comment on all of my posts and see others' comments. The discussion is often very interesting.


Lawrence, E., et al. (2015). Happiness and Longevity in the United States. Social Science Medicine, 145. 115-119.

Schnohr, P., et al. (2018). Various Leisure-Time Physical Activities Associated with Widely Divergent Life Expectancies: The Copenhagen City Heart Study. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 93, 1775-1785.

Wen, C. P., et al. (2011). Minimum amount of physical activity reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study. The Lancet, 378, 1244-1253.

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