The Importance of Play, Long Walks and Outdoor Workouts, or Why the Optional Stuff Isn’t Actually Optional

Before I get to today’s Monday Musings I wanted to give a shout out and big thanks to everyone that came out the inaugural PAST in Southern California this weekend. It was wonderful meeting each of you in person. And because of you the first event was a smashing success. So thank you!

Coming out of the gate, this event surpassed my expectations by a large margin. 30 devoted Primal enthusiasts trekked from all over SoCal and even as far as Phoenix to spend 7 hours immersed in all matters Primal. We convened at Karma Crossfit in Manhattan Beach thanks to our gracious hostess Katy Rickman. I was particularly impressed by the knowledge and passion from the audience about the Primal Blueprint, and how quickly they absorbed and appreciated the message. The guests added so much to the event and kept me excited and energized for 7 hours, which I must admit is about twice as long as I’ve ever talked in a single day.

I’m really excited about the remaining dates on our PAST agenda, as is Brad Kearns, my writing partner who helped me create the presentation and will deliver several of the upcoming seminars. Whether you are a dabbler or a diehard Mark’s Daily Apple regular with a battered, dog-eared copy of the Primal Blueprint on your kitchen table, I promise that you will get tremendous value from the PAST seminar. Our able video director Bradford Hodgson filmed the entire event and we are preparing some select excerpts to help give you a sense of what PAST is all about – stay tuned! Now on to the Musings…

Contrary to popular belief, what many describe as optional is actually not optional in the pursuit of physical excellence. “Try working out outdoors” or “Go on a hike” is not just tentatively recommended advice to be discarded or glossed over. Long walks don’t belong in the miscellaneous category, and playing is as important as lifting heavy things. All this stuff – the play, being outdoors, the frequent bouts of moving slowly – is crucial. I should know this better than anyone, but I still forget. I’ll move my schedule around to fit in a circuit of dips, pullups, squats, and sprints, only to skip the forty-five minute walk I had planned that evening and screw around online reading blogs and papers instead. I am good about making the Ultimate game every week now, but I wasn’t always. These are areas where I need to improve. They’re weak spots for me – and, I gather, for a lot of you as well. Jobs, families, extracurricular responsibilities, and money get in the way and cannot be ignored, sure, but we also can’t ignore the demands of our ancient physiologies. So, in this week’s edition of Monday Musings, I’m going to briefly discuss a few bits of research that highlight the importance of fixing those weak spots.

They don’t call it the great outdoors for nothing, according to the authors of a recent systematic review of studies comparing outdoor workouts to indoor workouts. Overwhelmingly, outdoor workouts won. Outdoor workouts resulted in greater revitalization, increased energy, and more positive engagement, along with less depression, anger, confusion, and tension. While it would have been extremely cool if there were more decidedly “physical” benefits to working out outdoors, like “higher levels of protein synthesis in the lats when doing pullups from a tree branch” or “more recruitment of fast twitch muscle fibers when power cleaning a dew-soaked log,” the improvements to mental health are just as important. We can get the physical benefits of exercise anywhere, but exercise should be more than just protein synthesis and muscle fiber recruitment. Besides, the authors hope to do more research into the unique physical benefits – if they exist – of outdoor exercise. Off the top of my head, I’d guess that they’d come from increased buy-in/enthusiasm and maybe performance boosts from visualization/immersion. Also, consider the randomness of the wild; real hills are better than pre-programmed hill simulators.

What about play? People use both mind and body to play, as you well now. They cavort, they roughhouse, they dance, they gamble, they throw dice, they simulate war using pieces of plastic on a cardboard surface, they conduct complex sports games using rubber spheres, they form leagues around these sphere games, they follow professionals who play in such leagues for massive sums of money, they pose and solve puzzles and riddles. They play games and sports, and have been doing so for a long time. Archaeologists have been finding evidence of play in digs for years, but, because it’s “just” games, it gets ignored. A Swedish grad student, Elke Rogersdotter, who’s doing her thesis on the importance of play in the ancient world, sees it differently. She’s been studying a recently excavated 4000-year old city in current-day Pakistan. Gaming artifacts, like dice and game pieces, are turning up in every tenth find from the city. And they aren’t scattered around randomly; they’re concentrated in certain areas and there are patterns to their dispersal, suggesting dedicated gaming sites and a large formal role for play in the Bronze Age city. The evidence places play at 4,000 years, but I’d say the spirit of gaming has been around for far longer. As more archaeologists wise up to the role of play in human history, expect for that official number to get a whole lot bigger. Maybe we’ll even get some physical anthropologists weighing in on the subject.

How about walking? Researchers found that a year of walking forty minutes a day, three days a week, increased the size of the hippocampus by 2% in a group of older sedentary adults. Another group, same demographics, did a year of yoga and lost hippocampus mass – 1.4%. Losing that much mass is pretty normal for the age group (mid to late 60s), but adding any, let alone 2%? That’s significant. Spatial memory improved in both groups, with the walking group seeing the biggest improvements. In fact, hippocampus size increases correlated with memory improvements. Easy neurogenesis – not a bad deal, eh? Try pairing your walking with some strength training for even better results.

I don’t think playing games, spending time outside, and going for a few walks each week are burdens. On the contrary, they’re essential. So why do we treat them like they’re optional?

They aren’t.

What do you think, readers? Do you treat certain Primal lifestyle behaviors as if they were optional? Do you find value in play, long walks and outdoor workouts in your own life? Let me know in the comment board!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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