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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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June 24, 2009

The Definitive Guide to Play

By Mark Sisson
125 Comments

I’ve mentioned the Primal concept of play quite a bit recently, and I figured I should clarify what I mean with a comprehensive post.

But Mark! A Definitive Guide to something that is essentially formless, spontaneous, and boundless? Surely you jest!

Before you scoff, consider the current status of play in our society. Think about where “play” as a concept has been relegated – to the “important but ultimately expendable” category.  Roving bands of children out for kicks and innocent thrills who answer only to the streetlights are absent, replaced by Purel-soaked kids being bused to their next “play date.” Working men and women accumulate enough stress for a dozen Groks in the course of a week, putting in overtime and working weekends, only to collapse on the couch in front of the TV once they get home. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a few hours a week on the treadmill or out in the yard with the kids or the dog. When they finally manage to get it, people enjoy play (it is fun, after all), but – whether it’s our Puritan past summoning hidden guilt at the thought of pleasure for pleasure’s sake or the consumerist mentality pushing us to work, work, work – there’s always “real life” calling and interrupting the fun. Pure play has become more of a luxury nowadays or, even worse, is considered to be “kids’ stuff.” But when your kids can’t even play without checking their schedules first, you know there’s a serious problem.

We didn’t always have this problem. In fact, for tens of thousands of years, play was a vital component of communal living and social cohesion among our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Once the kill had been made, or the day’s supply of roots, shoots, nuts and leaves had been gathered, Grok played. No commutes. No stopping at the grocery store for a bouquet of roses for an angry spouse. No rushing to make the bank before it closes. The kids would scamper around, chasing each other. Adults might wrestle, race, have throwing contests, or even just hang out and groom each other. This was pure, unadulterated leisure time, and plenty of it. Play wasn’t just about having fun (though that was a big part of it); it also had practical benefits. Groks that played together formed bonds, strong social ties that strengthened the collective power and safety of the tribe.

Modern hunter gatherers, like the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, work far fewer hours than the modern 40-plus-hours a week worker while enjoying far more leisure time. Despite this gap, one could consider the !Kung more affluent than the average city dweller, simply because they desire and require less material wealth than we do. We can surmise that Grok, too, lived in what anthropologist Marshall Sahlins calls the “original affluent society,” where his desires were mostly limited to food, shelter, companionship, and community, and where those desires were almost always met. Compare that to the time and focus it takes to achieve our desires (new car, condo, grad school tuition, new computer), and it becomes obvious that Grok lived a relatively stress-free life with plenty of playtime.

You need to realize that replicating the stress (or lack thereof) levels of Grok matters almost as much as emulating his diet and fitness. There’s a very real link between exterior stress (especially the “artificial” stress we “civilized” folks exert on ourselves) and disease, and play can be a great way to mitigate its effects.

So we see that this modern aura of expendability surrounding play actually makes getting it more necessary – and more difficult – than ever. We need to unwind from all the stress in our lives, just as Grok unwound from the stress of his, especially when our stress is artificial and arguably more pernicious. What better way than incorporating a little unstructured, endorphin-boosting play in our lives?

Other Benefits

Besides its stress-reducing, social qualities, play has other quantifiable benefits. A New Zealand study showed that workers were 82% more productive following a vacation, and their sleep habits were better. Australian researchers suggested that frequent breaks for sedentary workers results in better weight control and improved triglyceride and blood glucose numbers. The New York Times recently covered a study showing that increasing leisure activities improves immune function faster than stress can suppress it. It seems like the more you reduce stress, the more easily everything else falls into place – no more stress eating, better focus at work, nothing weighing on your mind before bed. Then there’s the fact that playing is simply fun and enjoyable. Isn’t quality of life about health and happiness?

How to Do It

Specific instructions for an unstructured activity are impossible (and counterproductive), but there is a basic guideline: anything goes. That’s about all I can tell you. Any further direction from me or anyone else as to how, what, and when would compromise the spontaneous nature of true play. It’s important to discover your own particular brand of play. Indeed, I think the desire for active leisure is hardwired into our genetics (just look at the benefits), only it’s often smothered by the rigors and pressures of contemporary adulthood.

Play can take many forms. For most of us, we’ll naturally gravitate toward something we enjoy and excel at. I like playing Ultimate Frisbee for my weekly “allotment,” because it’s a fun way to exert myself and I’m pretty good at it. You might go grab a few games of pickup basketball or beach volleyball. Anything works. And although many people lead relatively sedentary work lives (thus making active play a necessity), those of you who live an active daily lifestyle might find pleasure in simply reading or taking in a movie.

The point is, play is meant to address a deficiency in your life. Most of us are stuck inside for too long and the burst of joyous outdoor activity is a counterbalance to that; for those who get plenty of exercise throughout the course of a normal day, relaxing leisure time could be the answer. The important thing is to take the edge off, so make the decision right now to incorporate play into your healthy lifestyle.

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125 Comments on "The Definitive Guide to Play"

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Brendan
Brendan
7 years 3 months ago

Here’s a great site on the importance of play: http://www.exuberantanimal.com/

Chris
Chris
7 years 3 months ago
Mark, great article. I am lucky to have play come pretty easy, as I have a two year old who loves any and all play. I would take any suggestions on different games to play with a toddler, play that causes her to think more than the random sillyness we often engage in. Also, I am looking forward to paddle boarding and surfing in Hawaii for a few weeks in July. I may try to incorporate paddle boarding into beach workouts; something like squat 50x, paddle 400m – 5 rounds for time. I have sandbags to use as well. Thanks… Read more »
Vin - NaturalBias
7 years 3 months ago

I think anything that promotes laughter is an excellent choice for leisure time. The sillier, the better! Most adults don’t laugh much and this is a big indication of how little leisure time most of us get.

Playing a sport is great too (I love sports), but it’s easy to take it too seriously.

I’m not so sure grooming others would be my first choice for a leisure activity. 😉

Dave Clary
Dave Clary
7 years 3 months ago

I love to golf, play racquetball, or play a game of H-O-R-S-E with the grandkids on the backyard hoops court. I grew up spending most of my non-school waking hours playing ball of some sort in the schoolyard across the street from my house. I’ve never stopped!

Aubrey
Aubrey
7 years 3 months ago

I think dogs are the perfect playmates. They’re ready to go anytime, anywhere. My dog is awesome, she always makes me laugh 🙂

Grok
7 years 3 months ago

Hmm.

I play with material things like motorcycles and firearms. I gravitate to and excel & these 🙂

Mark Lee
7 years 3 months ago
There can be little argument against the notion that “play” is a social behavior – even when done solitarily – and doesn’t mean “doing whatever you want.” Broad, socially-constrained rules about what constitutes “play” is practically self-evident. There seems to be a great deal of discussion about just how much free time hunter-gatherers had. Sahlins thesis was a ’60s reaction to the condescending prevalent views of his day about “primitive” societies, and many people including me believe that he somewhat idyllicized the !Kung existence and attempted to make it normative for hunter-gatherers. Other hunter-gatherers such as the pre-horse Plains Indians… Read more »
Meeses
Meeses
7 years 3 months ago

I suck at play. I fail massively to get any kind of play at all. I can’t even bring mself to play board games, and juggling just depresses me. The very idea of play stresses me out, and I have NO IDEA how to go about it! D’oh.

Grok
7 years 3 months ago

Don’t worry about sucking, just do it. Just run around and act like a idiot. You’d be surprised at how liberating it is.

You might have a problem of caring what other people think? If so, work on getting rid of that. Who gives a crap what random people think.

Primalchild
Primalchild
7 years 3 months ago

Hum any old note and shake your face as hard as you can for a couple seconds. Repeat. There. You’ve taken an important first step.

Hannah
Hannah
7 years 3 months ago

I like to get dizzy.

Spin around the room or shake your head around… sounds weird… but it’s a nice feeling. (:

Peggy
Peggy
7 years 3 months ago

don’t forget dancing/skipping around to a song in your head! Crank up some techno & dance like you just don’t care!

If you have someone else around, don’t forget good old tickle-fights! Or pillow fights, or water fights…

another one of my favourites when I’m “in the city” is if I happen upon people playing frisbee in a park, I just tell them to start tossing my way. And nothing beats a good roll down a grassy hill.

It’s all good fun and we NEVER outgrow it.

Sean Carley
7 years 1 month ago

When is the last time you tried to do the monkey bars? For me, they are a great reason to stop at a park and inevitably lead to what else can I climb on, over, around or under.

Greg at Live Fit
7 years 3 months ago

This is especially important if work and play are separate things for you. It gives the very necessary opportunity to recharge, both physically and mentally.

Aaron Blaisdell
7 years 3 months ago
I love ping pong (there’s a table at Hillel just off campus) and afternoon-delight with the wife (it works well anytime day or night). I play a lot with my 3.5 year old. She loves to dance and it’s amazing how much energy it takes just to keep up with her! As a kid, every spare moment was spent either reading or playing/exploring. I love board games, video games, Dungeons & Dragons (with dice, not on the computer), bowling/pool, swimming, hiking or just nosing around where I “shouldn’t” be (e.g., climbing a fence into an “empty” field to turn over… Read more »
Mike OD - Fitness Spotlight
7 years 3 months ago

Play should not be about competition (as too many mental stressors that come along with that)….just enjoying whatever it is you are doing for the sake of doing it. Hence why I gave up golf long ago….it wasn’t that fun once I got competitive with myself. Now I’d rather just go hit balls at a driving range with no care in the world where they go….and no desire to go play 18 holes.

Dave Clary
Dave Clary
7 years 3 months ago

Mike, you can “play” 18 holes if you do it right!
http://davegetsfit.davidclary.com/?page_id=144

Meghan
Meghan
7 years 3 months ago

Mark, have you read “Last Child in the Woods”? I just finished it and it essentially is this, only expanded. Definitely an important read.

Tersh
Tersh
5 years 12 days ago

Came here to post this, the book is the go-to literature on the importance of unstructured, unsupervised outdoor play, and the lack of it leading to “nature deficit disorder” – ADD, diabetes, so on and so forth. Definitely have to read it.

(p.s. the author is Richard Louv. )

SassaFrass88
7 years 3 months ago

TICKLE FIGHT!!!! 😉

Mary
Mary
7 years 3 months ago
My home consists of 2 parents, 3 early 20’s kids, and 1 alzheimer + dementia grandmother. It takes all we have sometimes to get through work/school, everyday necessities and taking care of my grandmother. We recently got a Wii with Rock Band (I know Mark… you don’t like Wii).. but, every since we got it, once we put my grandmother to bed, the 5 of us each pick up an instrument (or the microphone for whoever is feeling the most brave) and rock out. We really get into it – it has been a life saver and we all laugh… Read more »
Kyle Bennett
7 years 3 months ago
“one could consider the !Kung more affluent than the average city dweller, simply because they desire and require less material wealth than we do.” Affluence isn’t things, whether absolute or relative to cultural norms. Affluence is options. Things can provide options, provided the cost does not close off even more. Free time provides options providing one has the resources and health to take advantage of opportunities. Play, whether physical or mental opens up more options than most people realize, not only from social bonding and health benefits, but from the open-ended experimentation and learning that is its essence. If it… Read more »
Donna
Donna
7 years 3 months ago

Play takes your mind off your problems for awhile and it’s definitely rids stress.
Play, Laugh, Enjoy Life, it’s a healthy part of us all!

Gary M
Gary M
7 years 3 months ago

Play, for me , all of 54 years, is in the form of endurance sports. I can “zone out” and relish in the moment. That being said, I just chopped about 5 minutes off my last years PR for a sprint tri. No stress, just enjoying the sweat !

Brad
Brad
7 years 3 months ago
Last night I took my three boys 1,2, and 5years old to the park for about 1 1/2 hours we climb every thing we can played tag, and spent almost 1/2 an hour rolling down a grass hill. If your not sure how to play, just watch kids. When ever we go for walks the older two look for the biggest rocks they can pick up, and then of course see who can throw the furthest. We spend a ton of time digging holes, and as for mind stimulation when we get tired we lay on our backs and look… Read more »
Peggy
Peggy
7 years 3 months ago

Brad, How awesome you are! so many parents force their kids to “play” soccer,hockey, etc to fulfill their own need to compete. It’s so refreshing that there are still grown-ups out there that remember how to play with & as a kid. I bet you guys love to skip pebbles in the water too…

Brad
Brad
7 years 3 months ago

Thanks! Yeah my kids are young, so the structured sports haven’t come to much yet. I will give them the option to pick one summer, and one winter sport and will encourage them to work hard but only if its what they want to do. Right now hiking and fishing are at the top of my 5year olds list, and yeah my rock skipping record is 16 in one shot. My boys are very focused on seeking out “Good skippers” when we walk along the river bank.

Berto at Discount Supplements
7 years 3 months ago

Surfing and Volleyball baby! Love the summer, soon we can trunk it!

barbie
7 years 3 months ago

I like to walk, run, now rollerblade, and roll around in the grass…all in the form of play. Oh, and hike.

Miriam
Miriam
7 years 3 months ago

I love playing and am very good at being silly (I really have no shame), I love playing silly games with my nearly 3 year old niece and doing embarrassing dancing in front of my 13 and 16 year old nieces – anyone remember the birdie dance? The difference in reaction is priceless the little one loves my silliness the older ones roll their eyes at me!

robert m
robert m
7 years 3 months ago

If you say all carbs get turned into sugar whats makes the carbs from berries and fruit any different than grains, if two people get 1500 calories from primal and one gets 500 from grains the other 500 from berries do you think their will be an body composition changes? I don’t.

Herman
Herman
7 years 3 months ago

Do you know how much berries you have to eat to get 500 kcal?

Mike OD - Fitness Spotlight
7 years 3 months ago

Play is also such an important social bonding connection too….as playing 2 hours of a 1-on-1 beach whiffle ball game with my 13yr old nephew was more fun than any paid form of entertainment we could of done together (like go to the movies).

Jamie
7 years 3 months ago
LOVE this, Mark. I think of the need for a comprehensive description of play in the same vein as gyms–it’s tragic that our culture predisposes us to need them. Play is natural and should come naturally; gyms are unnatural and should not exist ever. Two examples of how we have to overcome years of cultural inculcation in order to live as we were meant to live. That said, I don’t play nearly as much as I ought (is that allowed? having a particular amount of time that you *ought* to play? or does that defeat the whole point). Usually play… Read more »
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Trinkwasser
Trinkwasser
7 years 2 months ago

Kids! Oh yeah, not being able to have any of my own I used to borrow other people’s, I made a great if slightly disreputable uncle and liberate my own Inner Child.

Probably get arrested nowadays (sigh)

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discgolfgeek
discgolfgeek
6 years 11 months ago
Ultimate is a fine sport but give consideration to another related sport: disc golf, a game that is based on golf except you use a disc similar (way more aerodynamic) to a frisbee. While playing a couple of (2 hrs per round) rounds of disc golf, you will walk up to 4-5 miles and be on your feet the entire time if you so choose. You will activate lots of fast-twitch muscles as you will need these if you want to propel the disc from your hand to baskets as far as 200, 300, 400, or even 500′ away. You… Read more »
Yavor
6 years 11 months ago

Yeah I prefer basketball whenever the weather permits. Unfortunately it’s getting cold already here so basketball opportunities diminish.

But – during the winter I like to go to the nearby park (it’s like 10 minutes away) and run around in the snow with my labrador.

I guess even the cold weather has its upsides. Though I’d rather live in a never ending summer…

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