Finding the Fun in Physical Activity

Why work out when you can play?

Posted Jan 12, 2012

In the last several months, I lost a workout partner to a job change and another to a joyful pregnancy, leaving me in the wasteland of having to be self-motivated for my exercise.  To make matters worse, my individual exercise regimen had slid into the land of the boring, and I was trying to come back from a three-week chest cold that sapped whatever ease there had been in my workouts.  For all these reasons, to return to regular exercise I needed more than willpower - I needed play!

Who wouldn't rather play than work out?  It is hard to run on a track, but it is much easier to run as part of a chase game or on a basketball court.  The game absorbs your mind, and takes your focus away from the physical feelings and boredom of prolonged exertion.  But if you don't like organized sports or don't have a team or chasing child handy, it can be challenging to find play in a workout. 

For a while, I was set with exercise play.  I played at my workouts as part of rock climbing: that is, indoor rock climbing, complete with air conditioning, music, and padded flooring.  But after several years, the novelty has been wearing off, and I wanted something new for a regular workout that was easier to arrange than a trip to the climbing wall or gym.  For this challenge, my brother-in-law saved me.  He recently called to tell me about a new sort of race, one where I could be protected from the monotony of longer training runs, and where, with just a little thought, I could involve my 12-year-old son.  The event was a Warrior Dash.

The Warrior Dash is a run, but it is a run through mud, under barbed wire, across tires, over junked cars, across cargo nets, down steep slopes (with a rappelling line), and across flames - yes, across flaming trenches.  Now, that is a way to end boredom during a run, as well as an antidote to long leg hair. 

And in case you are about to count yourself out of a race like this due to age, the official age range for the event spans from 14 to over 70 years.  Costumes are also encouraged.  It offers the vision of play, as part of a running event.

The most important aspect of my participation in a Warrior Dash is the way it has transformed my interest in working out.  Yes, it gave me an endpoint goal - to be in sufficient shape for running, crouching, leaping, climbing, and falling; all without taking any of the training too seriously.  But motivation linked to endpoint goals alone can fade quickly.  

More important than the endpoint goal is the way that the Warrior Dash changed the feel of my regular workouts.   Rather than having to motivationally whip myself around my regular running route-which, by the way, is around a pretty pond with trees to either side of the path-I got to experience this route in a new way.  I got a new focus for my attention not on my music, my labored breathing, my pace, or the look of the pond, but on finding things to leap over, crawl through, climb down, and pull around.  Fallen trees along the path became things to leap.  The occasional boulders (placed to prevent cars from entering the running path) became barriers to climb on or leap over.  The two trees growing near each other became a climbing wall, and the short hill with mud (or snow depending on the day) became a back-and-forth, up-and-down relay.  In short, my runs have become a search for varied activities and new abilities - all addressing the barriers and exercises that might serve me in the Warrior Dash.

Even better, I found a way to incorporate my son in the workouts.  Although he would usually turn down a request to join me in a run, he has been more than happy to join me as drill instructor for these bizarre workouts.  He gets to call out, "run to that tree and back, and then jump between the boulder and the ground 10 times," or, "do 20 push-ups and then crawl to that bush and back on your hands and knees."  Because he had to accompany me along the trek for these odd activities, he got his workout, and I got mine.  And although at times it looked like elder abuse, it was instead family time, play time, and exercise time all rolled into one.  I found my play, and I felt kind of like a warrior....

Copyright Michael Otto

Drs. Michael Otto and Jasper Smits are authors of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well Being.