Why and how to incorporate play into your exercise.

Picture this. You just googled "small group training gyms in Washington Heights" and found Uptown Movement. Pictures online look pretty cool. It has all the fun stuff: kettlebells, barbells, climbing ropes. All the stuff you want to learn so you register for a class, jump on a train, and here you are. Instead of swinging some kettlebells around, the coach is asking you crawl while juggling a balloon and next she has you trying to hit a complete stranger with a PVC pipe. You think to yourself, "this is kinda fun, but what the eff does this have to do with exercise?".

That reaction makes sense, but I assure you, there is a method to the madness. Like everything at Uptown Movement, our classes are thought out so every aspect has a reason. The majority of our programing is based around making you stronger. We use complex and unstable tools that force your entire body to work. We use specific forms that help build bodily connection and awareness. Strict form and bodily awareness are pillars of the process, but so are freedom of movement, autonomy, and exploration. The last two is where play comes in.

The Benefits of Play:

The benefits of play as part of childhood development are well established. Everything from language skills to social interaction to critical thinking and creativity to academic learning has been shown to be positively affected by play. Is this relevant to about adults? Modern research seems to suggest it is. Play is known have three major positive effects on adult minds; releasing endorphins which boost the mood, increasing spatial awareness, and improving brain health. 

Until relatively recently it was thought that the brain's ability to react, adapt and grow stopped around the age of 25. This neurological attribute known as neuroplasticity has now been shown through the work of people like Dr. Michael Merzenich to last throughout our lifetime. The key to the brain staying adaptive and strong? New and varied stimulus. A great way of providing these novel stimuli is through play.

So, do our brains stop growing at 25 or do we stop growing as individuals at 25? Chances are by your late 20s you have a vocation that you will be doing some version of for the foreseeable future. You may change your job but will most likely be using your brain in a similar manner. Chances are you have stopped moving in complex ways, stopped playing sport, and most importantly, stopped playing. I believe this is what has the effect on neuroplasticity rather than biological predetermination. 

While the variables for this are too many to ever get a solid scientific answer, it does seem fairly well established that play can have a positive effect on brain health and that is enough of a reason for us to incorporate it in Uptown Movement's programming. 


How play can help with building better movement:

As mentioned above, most of our training is built around specific exercises with specific forms to build connection to your body and awareness around biomechanical efficiency.  We also use free forms and more complex tools like flow training and club-bell training. These forms of training naturally involve more focus and attention due to the complexity of the movements. The complexity is best approached with a sense of exploration and inquisitiveness. Like a child figuring out to walk, we spend time trying to figure how your unique anatomy can accomplish a certain movement pattern. This "figuring out" is a form of play. 

Another way we use play is to integrate the body awareness you are learning with strict form exercise into real world scenarios. For example, in an Explore level class you will spend a lot of time learning the 'deadbug' exercise. It is one of our "go to's" when it comes to core control and cross body coordination. You'll then learn to apply it in a more dynamic way like crawling. However, all of these exercises are very controlled which makes them easy to focus on.

Let's take a real world scenario as an example.  (Playing a game of tag as a 42 year old man may not be a real world scenario for you yet, but controlling your body from the center while using opposite hand and leg (crawling, running, walking etc) is!) What's also real world is that this movement is dynamic; things are constantly changing. By including movement training into a game scenario it creates a low stakes environment to practice the strict forms and techniques in a more dynamic and realistic nature. Bottom line, for your nervous system to use the optimal form it must recognize that form in a cognitively challenging way. What's the real world example of this? Let's say you go to do a 200 lb deadlift.  You focus on the weight and your understanding of the concepts of tension and load distribution throughout your body get the weight off the floor. You then then go to pick up your kid in a fake wrestling match and pull something. How can this be? Because you have never exposed your body to the dynamism of the real world. Play is a great way to bridge this gap. 


How to incorporate play into your exercise:


This is easy so long as you are willing to set your ego aside. First and foremost you have to find something you're not good at with low steaks and minimal risk. Juggling or trying to throw a ball with your non dominant hand, etc. We are after tapping into a beginner's mindset. Being able to approach something with this beginner's mindset is absolutely key to unlocking the benefits of play. 

Next up is the element of contingency. I do x than what happens? For example, take a new flow. If I am trying to learn the full body extension but am getting stuck on the very end, I need to start exploring and investigating what aspect of the movement is holding me back.


How do you begin to implement play in your life? Start paying attention; look for opportunity. Instead of riding a stationary bike go for a real cycle. Then once that's easy see if you can start hoping curbs. Go for a hike instead of the treadmill, or maybe even a trail run! Instead of doing the same type of squats over and over again change a variable. Use an unstable tool like a kettlebell or club-bell. Have fun and explore your environment.

Play can be in many forms; rough and tumble play fighting, learning a new language, learning a new move, creating something, manipulating objects, etc. As children we have a sense of freedom and creativity. We draw terrible pictures and we still love them. We learn how to speak and babble incoherently. We build legos into ridiculous shapes resembling nothing like the picture on the box. We try to learn a new move and bump our heads or stumble and fall. And that is all part of our growth. As adults we stop exploring the bounds of our creativity. We don't dance unless we are good, we stop creating art because it's not gallery worthy, we don't speak new languages because we sound like babbling babies. Tap back into your inner child. Don't approach play as something to be good at but rather as something good for you. Just like you shouldn't create for someone else, dance for people watching, or learn a new language for others to hear. This time of "play" is for you. See where how far it can take your mind and body. Oh, and have fun.


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