You can likely count on your pinkies the number of people you know who get excited about working out. Many of us simply tolerate exercise, like we might put up with flossing or eating brussels sprouts or other good-for-you practices. Others dread it, avoid it, and suffer the consequences.
The solution to this detrimental mindset, I believe, can be found in one short word: play.
Unfortunately, most of us are rusty on what it means to play. We live in a “gotta do more, gotta be more” culture, which has co-opted the bulk of our time for either work or self-improvement, or being entertained by others versus creating our own entertainment. Even in childhood, we keep kids so busy that there’s little time for pure fun. We twist their possible play opportunities, such as sports and music and arts, into rigid pursuits of performance enhancement. In adulthood, we make workouts such a drudgery that many people don’t even bother.
My husband is the poster child for this truth: He’s not a fan of the gym—or any other form of exercise for the sake of exercise. He would be hard-pressed to run to the end of the block for the purpose of fitness, but he can go for hours if you put him on the football field or into a game of ultimate Frisbee. That’s because these are activities he likes “just because,” not for the sake of getting in shape.
And that’s the trick: finding activities that you enjoy simply for their own sake. For a few rare people, traditional workout activities like running or cycling or strength-training may fit the bill, but most of us will have to think broader. Maybe it’s signing up for a local broom-hockey or kickball or dodgeball league. Or cranking your favorite tunes and dancing in your living room. If you have children, nearly any activity can become a workout disguised as play. (Ghost tag, in which we scramble all over the family room with the “it” person trying to catch us while under a blanket, is a favorite in our family.)
To discern if an activity is truly play, you can check if it fits these parameters I came across in an article by life and leadership coach Halley Bock. In the article, Bock cites author Stuart Brown, who argues that, among other things, play must be voluntary, fun and done without worrying about what others think—requirements I recently put to the test at SkyFit, a class offered at a Sky Zone indoor trampoline park (usually the domain of the 15-and-under set). The very nature of the class made it a candidate for a “playout,” but I found I enjoyed it a lot more and went a lot harder when I focused on the fun of catching air and doing rock-star jumps rather than on whether I was keeping up with the ultrafit lady next to me or whether anyone noticed when I accidentally launched myself out of the trampoline pit and into the hallway.
So here’s the challenge: The next time your calendar tells you it’s time to work out, take off your Fitbit, unstrap your heart-rate monitor, and instead of getting to work, get to play.
Kellee Katagi is one of those strange souls who actually enjoys working out for the sake of working out. She’s spent most of her 20-plus-year writing and editing career covering fitness, nutrition and travel, as well as outdoor sports ranging from skiing to spelunking to street luge (yes, that’s a thing).