Play: a Four-Letter Word that Heals

Have you noticed that people respond very negatively to the four-letter word, p-l-a-y? For some reason, we view play as something too childish, even for children. We do everything we can—exercise, work, take classes—to reduce the amount of time we “waste” having fun.

Nature has a very different view.

All mammals do things “just for fun” without planning or expecting a “pay-off”. Spend 30 minutes on social media sites, and you’ll see videos of a dog playing ball with a tortoise or wrestling with a crow. Apparently, play is very important to Mother Nature.

People have used play to survive starvation, prison, and illness. Anthropologists tell us that the average person living in low-tech “primitive” cultures spends about 20 hours a week “working” to provide themselves with food, clothing, and shelter. All additional time is devoted to play and sleep. Most human beings lived this way until a few thousand years ago. Yet, still we scoff at this powerful healer.

Play relieves stress and the inflammation that accompanies it. Medical science tells us that reducing chronic inflammation allows the body to heal. Enjoying games with other people releases oxytocin and boosts our immune responses. Playing, especially outdoors, revs up our metabolism so we can better digest our food. We get thirsty and drink water to help us eliminate toxins.

Play clears the mind. A 21-year study of healthy elderly people showed that participants who danced or played board games three times a week stayed sharp much longer than those who did solitary activities like reading and crossword puzzles. Participants who exercised by climbing stairs and bicycling seemed more likely to get dementia. Why?

Play lifts the spirit. It keeps our bodies flexible, our minds alert, and our spirits ready for change. Imagination fuels play. Whatever we dream up expands our future possibilities. Creative play draws on inner resources.

Play feeds our souls. Like a drink of water, it helps us eliminate both physical and psychological toxins. When we play with others, we open our hearts so stress and loneliness melt away.

For thousands of years, TCM practitioners have been recommending simple life changes, such as Qigong, to keep the body, mind and spirit in balance. Many of us playfully explore Qigong when we first learn about it. Then we discover that we need to practice, practice, practice to get good at it—just like a child who bounces a ball against a wall over and over and over until they learn to catch it every time, at every angle and speed. Regular practice polishes awkwardness into grace and beauty.

So set aside some time to play—today and every day. It keeps you young!