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September 27, 2011

Go Out and Play

Without going into too much detail, I can tell you that the last several weeks have been a little bit turbulent. Not necessarily in a bad way, but just … crazy, I guess.

I’m used to this feeling – the anxiety of having 100 things I want to do and not nearly enough hours to do them, with my mind constantly racing at all hours of the day and night - when I’m in the midst of super high-mileage training weeks with an ultra looming on the horizon. The funny thing about the current situation is that my race calendar is completely empty – and therefore, there’s no urgent need for me to keep training.

And make no mistake, my training has taken a significant dive. However, in the midst of the whirlwind, I still find myself lacing up my shoes as often as possible and heading toward the nearest trail I can find. In times like these, it’s not so much about staying in shape as it is about maintaining some semblance of mental well-being, or perhaps even momentary peace of mind.

It was during one such moment that the idea for our most recent Monterey Herald column was born; the article follows below.

Running Life 9/22/11        “Go Out and Play”

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.”
- Clinical report in PEDIATRICS, January 2007

“We run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves ... The more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom.”
- Sir Roger Bannister

When it comes to playtime, our society actually starts children out pretty well. It’s not until adulthood that things get screwed up.

The vast majority of elementary schools – including all of them on the Monterey Peninsula – include daily recess as part of the curriculum. It’s the time when kids leave the world of book reports and multiplication tables behind, and escape to a world of four square battles, double-dutch routines, or any magical adventures they can imagine.

Photo from JustRun.org

In middle school, recess is gone, but kids have mandatory physical education classes every day, an “active break” where they are instructed in the importance of regular exercise and exposed to a variety of sports and games. When they get to high school, P.E. continues, along with a wide selection of athletic teams awaiting their participation.

Anyone who has played high school sports can tell you those memories are among the most cherished in their entire lives; every practice they attended, and every play of every game made some tangible contribution to their emotional happiness. Even for those who didn’t play sports, their fondest childhood memories are typically related to time spent playing outdoors: climbing to a tree fort, bike riding through the neighborhood, or splashing in a river or lake somewhere.

But when those kids eventually take on jobs and families, they find that the world doesn’t place the same priority on recess and playtime that existed when they were young. If they cling to those games they loved as children – by playing in rec leagues, taking lessons from a local club, or signing up for various races – they sometimes sense the “real world” frowning upon them. Young parents aren’t supposed to leave their kids with a babysitter so they can work out; upwardly mobile career workers aren’t supposed to have free time for exercise; respected professionals aren’t supposed to be seen in sweaty running clothes.

Grown-ups gradually internalize these expectations and feel guilty or self-centered for taking time to exercise, even though it still stimulates their emotional well-being. And when life gets crazy and schedules get tight, exercise is almost always the first thing to drop off the priority list. “I just don’t have the time anymore” is the most common remark you’ll hear from formerly lifelong athletes, and it’s the reason we hear most frequently when catching up with runners who used to train with us.

Recess for grown-ups

The irony, of course, is that exercise never ceases to be a necessary part of our happiness and healthy development. Adults can find the same satisfaction and enjoyment from games and races that they did as children. Throughout my entire adult life, exercise (running in particular) has offered the same escape from the troubles of the world that play breaks did when I was a child in elementary school. In fact, it seems that whenever life gets the most difficult, stressful, or hectic, those are the times when I need my exercise outlet the most.

Exercise is recess, and it’s just as important now as it was when you were a child. Go outside and play!

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Katie 9/28/11, 4:38 AM  

So true. Running is definitely my "playtime", and absolutely becomes more important as stress increases...

Andy 9/28/11, 1:27 PM  

Careful there, Donald. With the minimalist running, and this sort of attitude towards play, it's a slippery slope towards full-on Mark Sisson style caveman.

Josh 9/28/11, 3:41 PM  

As a physical educator I cannot agree more. Run on.

Mary Parlange 9/29/11, 12:52 PM  

You go, caveman! Pick up a big few rocks while you're at it! No, seriously, this is a great reminder that not everything we do has to be serious and concentrated "effort." We all should take off our watches and not log the mileage every now and then. Run for the sheer joy of it!

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