09/21/2012 05:00 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

Boys Flying High: Why Adults Should Play

I'm following a dirt trail into woods that wind along a stream with my friends Kevin and Eric. The path cuts through a park just across the border from our suburban hometown in Northern New Jersey. Kevin tells us he knows a secret about the woods that he promises to show to us.

As we tag along, the foliage around us grows denser, the stream wider, the outline of the trail fainter. Our shorts and shirts stick to our skin. I'm 14 years old, circa 1966. It's mid-August, the day is hot, the air almost tropical. We wear polo shirts and shorts and baseball caps and Keds sneakers.

"There," Kevin says. "There it is." To our left, about 20 feet away, we see it. A swimming hole. A tall sycamore looms over the hole with a rope dangling long and thick from its lowest, sturdiest branch, about 10 feet off the ground.

We know just what to do. We strip down to our briefs, clutch the trunk of the tree with both arms and shimmy up. Bark bites into the skin on my bare chest. I snatch the rope and swing hard and fast and high into the open air, then let go and take flight.


As it happens, the new health care law that the Supreme Court upheld in June suffers from a missing link that's relevant here. I refer to the concept known as play.

You remember play. As children, it was our job to play -- tag, hide-and-seek, monkey-in-the-middle -- especially in summer. Then adult responsibilities ensued and we stopped. Now, instead, adults are expected to exercise.

But exercise has one little problem. Most of us hate to do it. Trudging on treadmills and hoisting dumbbells is repetitious and predictable. It feels too much like work.

No wonder so few of us ever get around to doing any. Fewer than two in 10 Americans engage in the recommended levels of exercise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last year, and more than one in four devote no time to physical activity at all.

Play could be a solution. We can fling a Frisbee in the park or kick around a soccer ball in our backyard. We can climb a tree or just go fly a kite. We can play most any time and most anywhere, whether in an office hallway or a supermarket parking lot, and do it either with or without kids involved.

Why bother? For starters, playing will save us money. Last year, 50 million Americans shelled out $20 billion to join gyms, with a $775 average annual cost, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. Yet most gym members -- estimates vary from 60 percent to 80 percent -- showed up rarely or never.

Play is simply a smart investment all around. As we play, we also get our exercise. Play strengthens our hearts and lungs, tones our muscles, builds bone density, curbs weight gain and extends our lives. But play is more than merely a means to an end. It also enables us to achieve that elusive intangible known as having fun.

"A man's exercise must be play, or it will do him little good," said George Sheehan, the physician running pioneer.

"Life," Plato said, "must be lived as play."

We went a little wild at the swimming hole on that August afternoon. We freed ourselves from terra firma and went airborne, flying high. We could have hurt ourselves of course. Someone could have drowned.

But that never happened. We were boys of 14 then, doing what boys of 14 tend to do. Playing with an abandon absolute, accident and injury beyond our imagining. Nothing could ever hurt us. We needed no iPods then, much less video games.

In all the years since then, I've never stopped playing, nor do I plan to do so. Every once in a while, I climb onto a seesaw sideways and, teetering, pretend to be surfing. Or tiptoe along street curbs as if balancing on a tightrope. Or hop onto the back of a shopping cart and propel it, scooter-like, down an empty supermarket aisle.

In those rare, brief moments, if only then, I'm playing again. I imagine myself back at that swimming hole, a daredevil reborn, once more flying high, forever 14.

So let us play, whatever our age. In so doing, we can hamper the onset of chronic diseases. Staying healthy will bring profound fiscal fitness as well. Changes in lifestyle behavior, including regular exercise, can save an estimated 75 percent of the costs in the U.S. healthcare system, says the CDC.

Let us all find ourselves a swimming hole.

Indeed, now that the summer is over, let's make play a cornerstone of national health care policy. Government agencies can band together to urge adults to participate regularly in the practice of play. The CDC can offer practical advice for adults returning to play. The National Institutes of Health can fund a long-term clinical study on the preventive properties of play. Physicians can prescribe regular doses of play. Employers can hold daily recess for workers, all in the name of corporate wellness.

In that light, play could turn out to be powerful therapy. It might even be exactly the kind of health care reform the doctor ordered.

Bob Brody, a public-relations executive at Powell Tate and an essayist, lives in New York City and blogs at