If you were one of those kids who said recess was their favorite subject in school, you’re in luck. It turns out what we all wanted to be doing as kids can boost our health as adults: play!
What is “play” exactly? For kids, play is pretty easy to understand, but for adults, it can be a bit harder to wrap our minds around. In the technical sense, play is defined as recreational activity as well as “the absence of serious or harmful intent” and “a move or series of moves calculated to arouse friendly feelings” (via CNN). So for adults, this may be a game night with friends, taking a pottery class, attending a virtual book club, or even listening to music and dancing. Basically, fun and games!
There are a couple of ways play connects to improved health, and if we engage in play with others or are active during the process, there are some extra benefits. In this article, we’ll discuss these four components and share ways you can incorporate them into your life (and help your parent do the same!).
Play is mentally stimulating
You may have heard playing certain kinds of games is good for your brain. These can be games you play with others (which have extra benefits as we will explain below) or games you play on your own.
Cleveland Clinic explains why: “You have something called ‘brain reserve,’ which helps your brain adapt and respond to changes and resist damage. Your brain reserve begins to develop in childhood and gets stronger as you move through adulthood. People who continue to learn, embrace new activities, and develop new skills and interests are building and improving their brain reserve.”
Many studies have been done on the connection between various types of games and cognitive decline, and although longer-term results are still being gathered, most research shows that playing games slows down mental decline. Playing games and getting your brain active can often reduce stress, which, as explained in the next section, can help reduce the risk of heart issues and stroke.
Practicing and learning a new skill can also be a form of play. Things like quilting, playing a musical instrument, or photography can improve your health by strengthening the connections between parts of your brain. These activities can be even better for your brain health than games – more challenging activities strengthen entire networks in the brain, rather than just affecting singular areas.
Play often leads to happy feelings and laughter
One major way that play can help your health is by bringing you joy and laughter. And these positive feelings are more powerful than you may think.
Studies have shown a strong connection between our emotions and cardiovascular health. Anger, depression, anxiety, and social isolation all lead to higher rates of heart disease. But the opposite is true well. Laughter, happiness, and a sense of humor helps you to stay healthy. Laughter can decrease stress hormones, reduce inflammation in the arteries, and increase HDL (the good cholesterol).
A variety of studies have linked laughter to a reduction in blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart problems and stroke. This research has even led to a new intervention technique called laughter yoga, which is used for a variety of health issues ranging from stress to dementia.
As an added bonus, laughter has been shown to help boost immunity and potentially reduce pain. Early physicians used humor to distract patients from the pain of surgery and to help them during recovery. And more modern research showed that participants who watched comedy videos needed less pain medication than those who watched control videos. In a 2011 study, researchers found that social laughter—laughter done in groups in a social context—elevates pain thresholds. How does it work? Laughter releases endorphins that help with the feelings of pain.
So laughter may really be a form of medicine!
Bonus benefit: Play with social interaction
For many people, play often includes interaction with others, which has been shown to provide a host of health benefits. Having an active social life may lower the risk of fatal cardiovascular disease. One research study showed that loneliness and social isolation were linked to a 29% increased risk of a heart attack or angina, and a 32% increased risk of having a stroke.
The theory is that social interactions may act as a buffer, protecting you from the potentially harmful effects of ongoing stress and the way your body responds to it. This stress response involves your body’s release of adrenaline, which causes your heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise.
Being around other people and doing activities you enjoy can also ward off depression, which is a risk factor for poor outcomes in people with heart disease. Take a class with a friend, join a book club, or host a game night to get this extra benefit.
Bonus benefit: Play while being active
Anytime you can get some physical activity your health will be all the better for it. Exercise is one of the major lifestyle factors that affects your risk of developing conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and many others. And if you’re having fun while doing it, you’ll reap all the extra benefits mentioned above as well! Try taking a dance class, playing golf with a friend, or bird watching around your neighborhood or local park.
You now have permission to get out there and have some fun – it’s good for you! And fun & games with your parent will have health benefits for both of you. If you’re not able to visit with them as much as you’d like, consider hiring a professional caregiver to help. Many of our caregivers play games and socialize with clients, and a great time is had by all!