Health Courses->Exercise Basics->Play


A happy heart acts like good medicine.


Recreation, sport, and leisure all can have very important influences on health. There can also be negative impacts. Many factors need to be considered when evaluating how to integrate different playful activities into a health enhancing lifestyle.

A Balance Between High Energy and Low Energy Activities

Play is the exultation of the possible.
                                      Martin Buber

A balance needs to be made between active and passive leisure activities. Most of us are familiar with the extreme dominance of one over the other as in the case of the compulsive, hyperactive amateur athlete who trains in the gym four nights a week, and runs and cycles five days a week, just to keep in shape for his season to season sporting activities. All of his weekends are devoted to some high-energy, competitive event, whether basketball, marathons, racquetball, tri-athalons, or tennis. Vacations are spent at a frantic pace using every possible moment skiing, rock climbing, windsurfing, whitewater, or kayaking. Because of this obsessive drive many injuries are sustained, and there is often physical burnout when the body reaches the limit of its abuse.

Contrary to this, but equally damaging, is the sedentary couch potato. It is identified in its extreme form by a combination of hobbies, none of which requires a maximum peak energy output greater than that needed to open the refrigerator door and snap open another can of beer. If watching old movies on the boob tube, stamp collecting, playing cards, and counting liver spots is the sum total of our recreational activities, efforts to increase more active leisure endeavors would prove useful.

play_000016143968This is not to say that there is no value in playful abandon. Tramping through puddles barefoot on a rainy day, building sandcastles that will wash away momentarily, or flying kites to pay homage to the wind spirits all have enormous value when they grace our lives in a timely fashion. Music too can be a unifying and healthy form of recreation. If it brings joy to the heart or meaning to the soul, its value is clear. If it shatters eardrums, throws the body into a frenzy, and provokes the mind with turmoil, it probably is not healthy recreation. In the resource section there will be some recommendations on where to find good, wholesome music.

Music attracts the angels in the Universe.

                                          Bob Dylan

Conditioning Balance Are we providing a balance of aerobic conditioning, flexibility and strength development, and coordination training, with more passive relaxing activities? Most people like to mix their health-promoting, physical-conditioning activities with some enjoyable sport. It seems that most of us stay with a regular exercise regimen if it is part of our play and is not just pounding our feet on a treadmill, lifting hunks of iron, and stretching to the tune of creaking joints. Finding a good combination of sport and play to be supplemented by more specific training endeavors is usually not difficult, and the variety increases the joy.

Men do not quit playing because they grow old;
they grow old because they quit playing.  

                           Oliver Wendell Holmes

Imagine this week of sport, play, exercise, relaxation, and socialization: relaxing but energizing moving meditation with Tai Chi three mornings per week, silent, seated meditation three mornings per week, and one session of group meditation, prayer, song, chanting, or other form of worship; a high energy walk in the park on one day, a mountain bike ride in the woods on another, a swim or some water aerobics on another, an aerobic rest day, a bicycle ride the next day, an aerobic strength training session with rubber tubing the following day, a volleyball, tennis, racquetball game on the seventh day. During every energetic pastime a short period of pre- and post- stretching exercises is performed. Seven days a week there is time to listen to relaxing music, dancing, singing, helping others, artistic expression, stimulating reading (often on health subjects, we hope).

Many of the above can be done alone or with friends and family. A balance needs to be found. Notice some items not included: hanging out at the mall, shopping for non-necessities and eating at the mall, drinking in the bars until the wee hours of the morning, stripping brain gears with mega-decibel heavy metal music listening, mud bog tractor pulls, television watching, video game playing, thumb sucking or nose picking.

Again this implies the wise use of priorities for overall happiness in life while traveling the paths to wholeness. The best use of time is a large factor when choosing types of recreation. That is why it is wise to find those activities that provide multiple health benefits where they are most needed in one’s life. Finding sports that are fun, relaxing, energizing, mentally stimulating, and which also provide good opportunities for healthy interpersonal relationships are valuable indeed. Choosing pastimes with the most health benefits and the least detrimental qualities is what we should strive for.

Appropriateness of Sport to the Health Needs of the Body

Are the sports one participates in matched to one’s physique and potential? Too often our athletic activities put too much stress on our tissue weaknesses, and injuries are the result. This happens at times when our egos tell us to push, against the good judgment of the body’s feedback mechanisms telling us to take it easy. Competition is a prime culprit in deceiving us to push our bodies past their limits. The endorphin/adrenalin high that comes with the excitement of competition often blocks good judgment of what is best for our bodies. Competition and striving for maximal performance involve pushing the body to the limit. It is a fine line which we often misjudge. The result of stepping over the line of tissue strength is injury.

Health and competition are mutually exclusive.

                                                   Arnold Schwartzenegger

It is even more tragic if parents push their children into sports, competition, or levels of performance not fully and freely chosen by the children and just for the egoistic fulfillment of the parents. Untold physical and emotional tragedy occurs to children when they play, not for play’s sake, but for some psychological emptiness in themselves or their parents. This increases in intensity directly proportional to the level of competition.


In our play we reveal what kind of people we are.

                               Publius Ovidius Naso

Consideration should also be given to the risks inherent in the sport relative to its benefits—risk of death, risk of serious injury, risk of cumulative injury, risk of minor injury. Statistics for college and high school athletics show that for categories of death, catastrophic injury, and serious injury football far and away leads the list. Wrestling, basketball, and gymnastics follow.   For non-collegiate sports high altitude mountain climbing may be one of the riskiest. This should be expected when a sport involves pushing oneself to the very limits of physical capacity in a hostile environment of enormous unpredictability. Boxing’s inherent cumulative head trauma is also another sport one would find difficulty fitting into a balanced holistic health or stress management program.

Psychological Contribution of Play  

It is a happy talent to know how to play.


Attention needs to be focused on the psychological qualities reinforced by games. Is cooperation and improvement of self-esteem encouraged or is ego-protecting competition the rule?   It is often very educational to investigate the ulterior motives for participation in any athletic event. Is it a way of gaining acceptance; making friends; expressing hostility, frustration, anger; overcoming fear; displacing emotions; or battling perceived inferiority? If so, is the event an effective means for enhancing life, or should its ends even be questioned? So the issue is not so much does this or that recreation make us feel good emotionally, but rather does it feed our psychological growth or prey on our emotional weaknesses?

  Leisure as a Part of Alone Time and Interpersonal Relationships.  

The place of the dance is within the heart.
                             Tom Robbins

How many activities are done alone and for what reasons? Healthy alone time is much needed in an increasingly hectic world. But an excessive compulsion to spend leisure time alone could indicate unfulfilled needs in other aspects of one’s life. Likewise a fear of being alone and always needing someone else’s company could indicate problems. How much does a particular form of recreation improve interpersonal relationships?   Is there a good balance between solitary recreation and participation with others?

Mind Play

Our minds need relaxation, and give way
Unless we mix with work a little play.


Is the leisure activity intellectually stimulating? A game of chess has more intellectual health benefits than watching a monster truck drag race. Physically active sports can also be intellectually challenging.  Route finding with map and compass while backpacking, or creative choreography in dance are examples.

Ecological Concerns of Recreation

How does the environmental setting influence health? The ear-shattering decibels of a rock concert differ in their impact on one’s health from listening to a bubbling brook in a high mountain setting. Imagine how an all night poker game in a smoke filled room adversely contributes to one’s health. These are important stress management issues to consider.


American Association of Therapeutic Humor has a good healthy site.

There are many internet sites for articles on non-competitive games.  Just Google non-competitive games.



He who laughs, lasts.
                      Mary Pettibone Poole