Another demand on our time
In the past week, no fewer than four people have asked me a variation on the same question: "What is the best exercise for weight loss?"
Leaving aside the huge complexity of the weight (fat) loss process and the fact that nutrition contributes far more than exercise does, the question made me feel sad.
How did we become so focussed on using exercise to change our weight, to the exclusion of everything else?
The question could have been, "What is the best exercise to improve my tennis game?" or "What training can I do to make it easier to play football with my kids in the park?", or even "What activity would you recommend to help me feel energised after a long day at work?". But it wasn't. And it very rarely is.
From the time most of us leave college or university, our days are filled with more-sedentary demands and the opportunities for physical activity, particularly playful movement, decrease. Exercise starts to become just another demand on our time; a formal 30 minutes-a-day goal prescribed by the Government that many people learn to dread.
It's no coincidence that, in recent years, there's been a surge in HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) offerings. The idea being that if you smash yourself to the point of collapse for a period short enough to fit into your lunch break, you've done your duty and don't need to worry about moving for the rest of the day. Couple this with the guilting and dramatic headlines about the UK's obesity crisis, and it's easy to understand how so many people simply see exercise as a way of burning calories and nothing more.
But what if there was a way to inject some playfulness back into exercise. To re-discover a child-like joy in moving your body just for the sake of it, to see how it feels, to test what it can do. Not because you've been told to by your doctor or because it might help reduce your waistline, but because it's fun.
Back to the playground
Now, there's no debate that a structured training routine is the best way to develop sports skills or achieve strength & fitness goals, but if it gets to a point where exercise feels like a monotonous chore, perhaps you need to break away from the routine.
It's likely that you repeat the same kind of movements week in and week out - the same chores, same daily routine, same exercise plan. Your limbs and joints get used to doing the same actions through the same range of motion and things can get a little bit, well, 'samey'. When you mess about with movement, it gives you the opportunity to tune in with your body, mix up your movement patterns and have some fun.
You don't need an actual playground or climbing frame to play with movement.
Give yourself 5 to 10 minutes. Clear a bit of space on the floor or go into the garden. Roll around.
Seriously, try it.
Can you transition from your feet to your bum to your hands whilst moving across the room, in the same way a baby would when they're first trying to walk? Can you try a forwards roll? A backwards roll? A cartwheel? A hand balance?
If this all sounds a bit random, check out the fantastic GMB guys for some more ideas on where to start.
Tune in to how your body feels as you're taking it through these different, perhaps alien, movement patterns. Is it easier to roll one way than another? Do you feel any tightness in you ankles, shoulders or hips? Maybe it doesn't feel comfortable putting too much pressure through your wrists. Maybe everything feels loose, fluid and strong?
Either way, use these 10 minutes to explore your body and play around with what it can do.
Down with the kids
If you do have actual children to look after, perhaps join in with their play time every now and again.
Take a frisbee or bat & ball set to a BBQ or birthday party in the park
Use the ever-wonderful natural world as your playground - climb over fallen trees & balance on logs
Incorporate little ones into your exercises - let them sit on your back as you crawl around, play airplanes or wheelbarrows
Try to channel the joy they take from playing into your own movement every now and again. Have a giggle at yourself if you fall over whilst trying to balance. If you're out for a run, pretend you're being chased and sprint as fast as you can for 10 seconds, to mix in some random intervals.
This might all sound a bit childish and silly, but that's kind of the point. To break out of the mindset that every second, every step, every movement equates to a calorie burnt, we need to reconnect with our bodies on a much more basic level. That child-like joy of running away from imaginary enemies or crawling on the ground like you've inhabited the body of an animal - play in its purest form. Let's never stop playing.