Restoring Recess by Carol Krucoff, E-RYT

young woman on a swing

Forget About Working Out — Resolve to Go Out and Play!

So here we are, facing the end of another year, and if you’re like most Americans you’re probably resolving that—come January 1st–you’ll start a fitness program and get in shape. But the sad fact is that, despite our good intentions, half of all adults who start a new exercise program drop out within six months.

Adopting a new habit isn’t easy. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out, a body at rest will remain at rest. Even the promise of better health and improved appearance won’t get most people to exercise regularly.

But there is one motivator that can pry even the most confirmed “potato” off the couch. Freud called it the pleasure principle: People do things that feel good and avoid things that feel bad. No wonder most American adults get little or no exercise and two thirds are overweight. Too many people consider exercise hard, painful work–a distasteful chore they must force themselves to endure.

Yet as children we didn’t feel this way about moving our bodies. Most kids relish physical pursuits, like skipping and running, as exciting play to be enjoyed.

So this year, meet your fitness goals by turning exercise into child’s play. Scratch the resolution to workout. Instead, vow to play actively, for 30 minutes, most days of the week. Think of it as recess, and try to recapture the feeling you had as a child of being released onto the playground to swing, play ball or do whatever your little heart–and body–desired. Don’t worry about flattening your abs or losing weight. Just enjoy the sensations of moving your body, breathing deeply and experiencing the present moment.

This is your personalized playtime, so pick any form of movement that you like–a solitary walk, shooting hoops with a friend, a yoga class, gardening, dancing, ping-pong, cycling. The options are vast, and nearly anything that gets you moving is fine, since even light-to-moderate exercise can yield significant health benefits—especially if you’ve been sedentary.

The point is to stop thinking of your workout as one more demanding task you must cram into your busy day, and start viewing it as a welcome recess that frees you from the confines of your chair to have some physical fun. Any regular exerciser will tell you that this is the reason they remain active. Yes, they exercise to manage their weight, build strong bones and all those other healthy reasons. But scratch deeper and most will admit that a central reason they’re out there day after day is that it’s enjoyable–their exercise satisfies body and soul, and is a cherished highlight of their lives.

If you think this attitude adjustment is merely a mind game, you’re right. Getting in shape is, after all, a matter of mind over body. But it’s also a healthy way of approaching fitness, to enjoy the journey as much as reaching the destination. Goals can be helpful motivators to shape up. But once you drop a clothing size, then what? Crawl back to the couch?

So instead of being caught up in reaching a certain scale weight, view taking care of your physical self–which in turn boosts your emotional self–as an opportunity for active play. This may be difficult at first, since most American adults “are inclined to judge play as neither serious nor useful, something unrelated to the center of human tasks and motives,” anthropologist Ashley Montague wrote in his delightful book, “Growing Young.” But, he argued, “the ability to play is one of the principle criteria of mental health.”

How do you start? Think back to activities you enjoyed in childhood—walking, swimming, playing ball—and try one. If you enjoy the social aspects of play, you may want to join a class or seek a partner. If you prefer the meditative Zen of a solo body in motion, you may want to go it alone. Just be sure to start slowly—to avoid the common “January First Syndrome” of doing too much too soon, getting injured and dropping out. If you’ve been inactive, five or 10 minutes every other day may be enough for the first week. Progress gradually, until you’re moving continually for 30 minutes, most days of the week. Who knows, you may enjoy it so much you’ll want to keep moving for 60 or even 90 minutes—and reap even more benefit.

It’s helpful to schedule time for your play break, since lack of time is a major reason people say they don’t exercise. The truth is, most of us find time for things that are important to us. It’s a matter of making choices. If you’re too tired at night, a commitment to playful movement may mean getting up a half-hour earlier or walking at lunch time. You might have to turn off the TV, cut short a phone chat or spend less time on the Internet to squeeze in recess. But if it’s fun, it won’t be a great sacrifice–it’ll be a willing trade-off. And as the old saying goes, “If you don’t make time to exercise, you’ll have to take time to be sick.”

To keep your recess fun, remember to:

1. Avoid negative “self-talk”. Instead of obsessing about your thunder thighs or ample belly, have an attitude of gratitude about your body and all that it does for you.

2. Choose a positive exercise environment. Just as fresh air and music can enhance your recess, mirrors may detract from your experience if you’re self-critical. If so, play outdoors or in a mirror-free room.

3. Consider a few sessions with a fitness professional—such as a personal trainer or yoga teacher—to help you get started. [Visit the web sites of the American Council on Exercise, www.acefitness.com or the International Association of Yoga Therapists www.iaty.org to find a qualified instructor.]

4. Vary your activity. If you like doing the same thing, day after day, great. But it’s fine to move in different ways on different days, depending on your mood, the weather and other factors you find relevant.

5. Avoid rushing from recess back to routine. Take a few minutes to breathe deeply and bring the refreshing spirit of playfulness back to your grown-up world.

About the Author

Carol Krucoff, E-RYT Carol Krucoff, E-RYT, is the author of “Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain” (New Harbinger, 2010), co-author with Mitchell Krucoff, MD, of “Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise” (Healthy Learning, 2009), and creator of the audio home practice CD “Healing Moves Yoga.” Visit her website, www.healingmoves.com.

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