Movement by any other name is just as sweet

Movement. What if we looked at movement through a new lens and instead of calling it exercise, we called it play?

Did you know there is actually a National Institute for Play? It was founded by Dr. Stuart Brown and he maintains that, “We have a biological drive to move and play. When children are walking, running, skipping and so on they are literally wiring their brains – creating neural pathways that will be available to them for the rest of their life (which is why, barring an injury, you never forget how to ride a bike.)” 

Consider this: Have you ever seen a grumpy baby in motion? Our youngest grand is six months old and as I watch her reach, grasp, roll, and crawl, she squeals with absolute glee as she discovers her body can move. It’s transformative. 

Science tells us that the “feel-good” hormone, dopamine, is released synergistically to create a sense of joy when we move. Regardless of how movement is defined, it has a big impact on our lives.

To some degree, we have all been on a movement journey since our earliest days. As kids, whether it was organized sports or games of kick the can in our backyards, there was a constant symphony of, “Can you come out and play?” And it was fun!

In high school, I often marveled at the endurance of cross-country runners who passed by my house on their six-mile loop. Secretly, I wanted to do that too, but I was painfully self-conscious and didn’t consider myself an athlete. Without the influence of an athletic family, I made up a story in my head that if I so much as tried to be an athlete, people would jeer with comments like – who does she think she is?! So, I didn’t try … until I went to college.

Under the veil of anonymity, I ventured out to the track at Bowling Green State University – and I ran. 

I not only discovered muscles I didn’t know I had, but I discovered an untapped spirit within me. And I loved it. All I needed was a decent pair of tennis shoes and a little time – my time. 

Through this odyssey, I learned that I COULD, you know, like The Little Engine that Could. I dare say that at times, it even felt magical when I got to the point where I was on cruise control, running for an hour or more. It was empowering. It changed me and I never wanted to go back to the way I was before.

Nowadays, at 66, my knees are not as forgiving as they once were so I find beauty in walking. I have found new challenges for myself, too, such as increasing my use of an ab roller. I just hit a new goal of knocking out three sets of 25. I figure by the time I’m 80, I should have a six-pack. I laugh at myself because I thought my three sets of 30 legit pushups was pretty good until I saw a guy at the gym killing inverted pushups from a handstand. No sweat! Don’t worry, I won’t try that at home anytime soon. 

Movement, I have learned, is not only important for lifespan, but also for our health span. It’s about quantity AND quality.

In Adam Piore’s 2023 Newsweek article, “Do You Play Enough? Science Says It’s Critical to Your Health and Well-Being,” he quotes early childhood development expert Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: “Play is so fundamental that neglecting it poses a significant health risk. And yet Americans have been squeezing playtime out of their busy schedules for years.”

So, if play/movement is so critical to our human condition, why do so many adults literally stop engaging?  Not to mention that doing nothing is problematic as Leslie Nielsen quips, “Doing nothing is very hard to do … you never know when you’re finished.”

“Physical inactivity is a major health problem worldwide and it is the fourth leading global risk factor for death, according to the World Health Organization, behind blood pressure, tobacco use, and elevated blood sugar,” according to Barbell Medicine founder Dr. Jordan Feigenbaum. He further states, “In fact, only 20 percent of the U.S. population report meeting current exercise recommendations.”

Fortunately, even small changes have measurable positive effects. For example, walking just 2,000 more steps per day (about 20 minutes of brisk walking) lowers the risk of having a cardiovascular event like heart attack or stroke by 10 percent, and lowers the risk of blood sugar problems by 25 percent.

Besides the physical benefits of movement and exercise, Kelly McGonigal, author of The Joy of Movement, maintains, “Exercise is critical to mental health. There are psychological benefits to exercise. It changes the brain and gives you more hope and energy. It teaches the brain how to be more resilient to stress.”

McGonigal suggests, “Make movement part of your life like eating and sleeping. Experiment with movement and find the movement that brings you joy.” 

In other words, crank up the dopamine! And … remember how to play!

If you’re struggling to move again – think of moving as you did as a child, inch by inch. One inch is better than no inch and chances are that if you get to one inch, you’ll want to get to another and another. I’m not perfect in my movement journey and you won’t be either. Don’t let imperfection stand in your way. Do it anyway. If you’re afraid, like I was, of what people might say about your efforts, understand that their descending opinions are none of your business.

And if you give yourself permission, maybe movement will even eventually feel as poetic as these words from John Muir, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop like the leaves of Autumn.” 

Be well.