4 Ways Playing Can Help Protect Your Body—And Your Mind

It’s not just for kids. Learn how to rediscover pure joy and how it can improve your overall well-being.

Two young people smiling and enjoying themselves while playing pickleball

Updated on February 8, 2023.

When was the last time you lost yourself in an activity just for fun? If you can’t recall, it may be time to tap into your inner child and discover what brings you pure joy—happiness that’s unencumbered by worry or stress. Children seem to do this effortlessly when they play. And even though this becomes harder to do as time passes and responsibilities pile up, more than 30 years of research suggests that play isn’t just for kids. In fact, it may be vital for the physical and mental well-being of adults, too.

“Play is as important for adults as it is for children, maybe even more so,”says Sejal Mehta Barden, PhD, a professor and the executive director of the Marriage and Family Research Institute at the University of Central Florida.

Scientists think that play may be hard-wired into our biology, having evolved millions of years ago. It might seem like kids’ stuff, but playing can help adults stay mentally sharp and build social-emotional skills. It can also help prevent depression and promote a healthier body.

“Play impacts both physical and mental health, and has been linked to decreased depression and loneliness, higher levels of life satisfaction, and having a more active lifestyle due to viewing exercise and games as fun,” Barden explains.

How playing can protect your well-being

Those who need some more motivation to take a break from “adulting” and make a point to flex their play muscles can consider these health benefits:

Greater quality of life: Research suggests that play may improve overall well-being and happiness throughout people’s lives. It has been linked to improved social skills and connectedness as well as greater creativity, a stronger sense of humor, and more hope or zest for life.

One 2021 study published in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling, examined the relationship between quality of life and playfulness (a personality trait that enables people to frame or reframe everyday experiences in a positive light) in 1,315 adults ages 55 and older. The study found that playfulness—but not age—was significantly associated with quality of life. These findings suggest that playfulness may help ease some transisitons that occur over time, such as changes in health, relationships, support systems, and social identity.  

“Play has been linked to increased contentment with aging and feeling more connected and supported compared to adults who don't play,” Barden says.

Improved physical health: If your idea of fun involves moving, indulging your inner child can automatically make you more active and motivated to exercise regularly. That, in turn, has been linked to physical and mental health benefits, including less disability and greater longevity.

If exercise feels like a chore to you, livening it up and putting the fun back into it may help you be more active, according to one 2016 study published in BMC Public Health. If swimming laps has become boring, try throwing coins or objects into a pool and diving for treasure or try an aqua aerobics class with friends. Replace a routine jog with a game of frisbee or try a new weight-bearing activity like rock climbing. Letting your imagination wander can help put the play back into your workout.

More mental clarity and stress reduction: Spending time doing what you enjoy can be relaxing, boost positive emotions, and help reframe negative thoughts. Some researchers suggest that play may also have a role in fostering resilience in the face of life’s stressors. One small 2016 study published in the Journal of Leisure Research looked at the relationship between playfulness and resilience in 167 members of The Red Hat Society, a playgroup and social organization for people who identify as women that supports “fun, friendship, freedom, fitness, and the fulfillment of lifelong dreams.”  The study found that playfulness through engaging in leisure activities may contribute to the growth of resilience in older age.     

Reduced risk for mental decline over time: As people age, their brain functioning naturally changes. This may include being a bit more forgetful or being less mentally sharp, explains Barden, noting that playing can help offset these changes. “Researchers have indicated that engaging in stimulating cognitive activities such as playing games or doing puzzles, can reduce cognitive decline and maintain memory,” she says.

Things many people do just for fun, including reading and playing cards or boardgames, could help ward off dementia later in life, according to a 2018 study published in JAMA Psychiatry. Scientists in Hong Kong surveyed more than 15,500 people aged 65-years and older about their reading habits and other mentally stimulating activities. After tracking these people for roughly five years, the researchers found those who engaged in these stimulating pastimes had a much lower risk for dementia regardless of their diet and exercise regimen. The study’s authors speculated the mental demands of these seemingly playful activities may help improve cognitive reserve.

Play may be so important for brain health that it’s also being used to improve the lives of people already living with dementia. Research published in Clinical Gerontologist in 2022 suggested that actively playing an interactive video game for eight weeks was associated with improved cognitive functioning and decreased depression.

But how can adults remember how to play?

The daily grind can leave people feeling drained—without much time or energy left to finish necessary tasks. Who has time to play anyway?

Carving out some time to re-learn how to play could actually help you become more productive and happier. Rather than “white-knuckling it” through your days, figuring out what brings you joy could help improve your quality of life. It may not clear your to-do list, but it might make that daily burden feel a little lighter.

No, you don’t have to play tag or run around a park—unless that sounds really fun to you. Play involves anything that brings you joy, absorbs your thoughts, and makes you feel relaxed, focused, or lost in the moment. Some people describe play as being “in the zone,” like time is standing still. Whether it’s playing a video game, reading a book, painting a picture, coloring, or riding a bike, play happens when you’re engaged in the activity for its own sake. When you’re playing you are not focused on an outcome, such as reaching a goal or winning.   

“If the person doing it is engaged and feeling content with the challenge, then it is play; if the person is feeling bored, irritated, or burdened by the task then it is not play,” according to the National Institute of Play.

Because play tends to be self-motivated, you tend to gravitate toward it, and want to do it again and again. But the idea of fun and games can vary from person to person. What seems like work for one person (such as writing a novel or fixing a car engine), might seem like play to another.

So, how can you figure out what works for you? A first step may be as simple as recognizing the importance of play and shifting your focus to include it in your life, according to Barden.

“Think of something that you love to do and do more of it,” she says. “Play can be inside or outside, it can be done alone like Sudoku, solitaire, racketball, or swimming, or in small groups like chess, scrabble, pickleball, or dance. It can also be done with a pet, like going on walks or hikes.” 

If you’re unsure where to start, try making a list of activities that sound fun, energize you, or help loosen the constraints of adulthood. Still stumped? Think back to when you were a child, and recall activities that made you feel free or absorbed you so much that you lost track of time. What activities did you do for their own sake, without being worried about getting things right or winning? Did you like to use your imagination? Did you like to be along or play in a group? Did you lose yourself in active play like singing, dancing, or playing sports? Or did you prefer pursuits like coloring, writing or board games?

It make take some trial and error to find out what helps you get lost in thought and feel like a kid again. “If you are enjoying yourself, you’ve got it! If you’re not having fun, try something else. Don’t worry about whether your play makes sense to someone else, or whether you are ‘any good’ at it. Just enjoy the play state. As long as you aren’t hurting someone, there’s no wrong way to play,” according to the National Institutes of Play.

Once you’ve found what makes you feel joyful, make it a regular habit. Keep your play items in a convenient spot, where you can have easy access to them. Carve out some time in your schedule for it—add it to your planner or schedule a “playdate” with friends. A quick internet search can help you find groups with a wide range of interests, from building with LEGOs, stargazing, game and puzzle nights, trampolining, sports and many other kinds of activities.  

While play cannot magically mend every problem, it can help you have a more optimistic outlook and take a break from work, commitments, and stress. That’s something everyone deserves—even grown-ups.

Article sources open article sources

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National Institute for Play. Play: The Basics. Accessed January 27, 2023.
Brown S, Vaughan C. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Penguin Random House. 2009.
National Institute for Play. Play for Adults. Making Play Part of Adult Life. Accessed January 19, 2023.
National Institutes of Play. Play for Kids. Accessed January 25, 2023.
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