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Play to Your Heart's Content

Play to Your Heart's Content
One of my patients asked me, “Dr. O’Keefe, because I am a strict vegan, and I run hard for over an hour on a treadmill in my basement every morning at 5 a.m., do you think I will live longer?” I said, “Probably not…though it certainly might seem longer.”
Adults are supposed to stop playing and get serious about life, but nothing lights up the brain like play - whether it’s a kid or a grownup having the fun. As humans, we are designed to play throughout life. If you can find activities that involve movement for pure enjoyment, you will be much more likely to make them a regular part of your life.
Play is a state of being, where you focus on the experience of having fun in the moment, not on accomplishing some goal. In our culture, play is seen as unproductive, trivial or even a guilty pleasure. Once we grow up, we are supposed to focus our time and efforts on personal and professional responsibilities; for some people playtime gets squeezed out of their lives. And that’s a shame, because play is just as essential for adults as it is for children. Play brings novelty and joy into our lives, and improves problem solving, creativity and relationships. The opposite of play is not work - it’s depression. Stuart Brown, M.D., likens play to oxygen. “It’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.”
Being playful comes natural for me, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of being a dad. When I’m playing with my children I get to act like a kid again. Last month on Spring Break, Joan and I were vacationing with the kids at a beach. We played all week long with a mix of teenagers and adults - volleyball out in the sun and the sand, barefoot soccer on a soft grassy field, walking on the beach, and snorkeling in the sea. No hard-core workouts allowed - this was all pure fun. Compared to working out alone, exercising around others leaves us feeling more mellow and blissful thanks to higher endorphin levels. Do you enjoy team sports like softball and basketball, or group yoga or aerobics sessions; how about boxing classes, golf, tennis, walking, biking or jogging with one or more friends, or lifting weights in a gym?
You know that emotional rush you feel when you hear one of your favorite songs? That’s brain chemistry in action. Studies show that listening to music you enjoy stimulates your brain to crank out dopamine, the neurotransmitter most closely linked to excitement and exhilaration. When you dance or exercise to music you enjoy, you will magnify the health and mood benefits of physical activity.
“You can't stop the future. You can't rewind the past. The only way to learn the to press play.”
- Jay Asher
Good Clean Fun...In The Dirt
Playing in the dirt is another of my favorite ways to spend some leisure time. There is something about digging in the soil and tending to plants that resonates with my soul and brings me joy. Springtime is such a natural high, especially after a long and brutally cold wintertime. Nothing chases away the winter blues faster than getting outside on a nice spring day to do some gardening - one of American’s favorite hobbies. Remarkable new studies show that some of the bacteria found in soil can naturally stimulate release of serotonin in the prefrontal cortex - like Prozac does, except you earn this pleasure by planting trees, flowers and vegetables rather than swallowing pills from the drugstore.
Getting your own dose of good clean dirt is as easy as strolling in the woods or tending to a garden or lawn. My good friend Allen takes me out mushroom hunting and we traipse around in the woods collecting morels…and ticks (inadvertently). He threatens to blindfold me while he drives us to his hallowed and secret mushroom foraging spots so I won’t be able to find them on my own. You won’t be shocked to know that people are generally happier on the weekend, than during the workweek. This is in part because when you are away from work, your time is yours to do with as you please - and that turns out to be very important for your sense of well-being. You can make your weekends particularly relaxing and invigorating if you spend some of your free time playing outdoors with people you love. And you don’t need to wait for Saturday or Sunday to get outside and play with your friends and family. Try to wedge some playtime into the week too.
Animal Play
Animals know how to have fun and are usually eager to play with their human friends. My wife Joan is always playing with one of our three dogs or three cats. Lola, a one-year-old kitten, is our most playful creature. She follows Joan around the house in the morning as the two of them play “make the bed.” While Joan is tucking in the bed sheets, Lola jumps underneath the covers to hide, prompting Joan to jostle about the feisty little feline, who is “fighting back” while purring loudly. Animals who live with us make us healthier and happier. In fact, recent studies show that pet owners feel better about themselves and tend to have more courage. Dog, cat or horse; it really doesn’t matter—though I find that mammals are much more fun to hug than say…a lizard. Even just taking your dog out for a walk counts as playful fitness. When I am feeling a little tired or discouraged, I can just look into their adoring eyes, pet and talk to them while they lick me on the face or purr - it never fails to make me smile and lift my spirits.
Fun in the Sun and Water
Vitamin D deficiency is linked to Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and heart disease. The best way to naturally raise your vitamin D levels: expose some skin - the more the better - to direct sunlight. Don’t expose enough to get sunburned, but enough to leave you with a very faint pink tinge to your skin, which usually takes about 15 to 20 minutes of strong midday sun during non-winter months. As a guide, if the sun is over half way up in the sky (45 degrees) from the horizon (0 degrees) to directly overhead (90 degrees) your skin will be able to make some vitamin D when it’s exposed to the sun. A recent study from England found that ocean views and other blue spaces are the best landscapes for making us feel happier. Wallace J. Nichols in his new book BlueMind describes how being around water and gazing at oceans, lakes, or rivers inspires feelings of awe and wonder. “It spurs the brain to release a mix of dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins,” Nichols explains. “It gives us a sense of oneness with the universe.” We may not have an ocean, but we have water everywhere. Kansas City is known as the “city of fountains,” so make it a point to enjoy the sights and sounds of our many fountains scattered around the metro area.
Recently, The Economist published an article entitled, “Get a life! Facebook is Bad for You.” The authors discussed how too much screen time may be harmful for one’s mood and work productivity.
A 2013 PLOS study found that excessive time spent on Facebook led to feelings of envy and a lower sense of well-being. Importantly, face-to-face time spent in the company of friends has the opposite effect - more time spent interacting in person translates to a happier mood. In a similar vein, a National Geographic survey called the True Happiness Test reported that the happiest people were those who viewed less than one hour of TV daily. Even unplugging from your smartphone, computer screen and TV for one day a week has been shown to improve happiness and work productivity.
Prescription to Play
Bottom line: play is not a waste of time; it’s a pure expression of love of life. And if you do it right, play is also good for your health - both physical and mental. So, make it a priority to play, at least a little, everyday - doctor’s orders!
In Good Health,
James H. O'Keefe, M.D.
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