What’s fun got to do with it?

It is commonly known that playing and having fun are important for children as these behaviours help them to learn and to develop.  If, for example, from the very beginning, a responsibility such as learning math is presented to a child as something fun, she is much more likely to have a positive attitude toward the subject, which will, in turn, influence the child’s reception to learning other subjects.  Researchers believe that play is an essential part of the growing process and that it helps children to reach their full potential (Dixon, Nov 2007).  But what about those of us who are ‘grown-ups’?  Why would fun and recreation be important for adults?

As the media has recently brought to our attention here in Cayman, observations by the Health Services Authority (HSA) indicate high numbers of obese children in the Cayman Islands.  As role models its important that we set a positive example and play with and have fun with our children, which can include being active with them in order to encourage exercise and prevent habits such as eating out of boredom or stress.

In recognition of the numerous health and social issues confronting the population and the need to increase availability and awareness of the benefits of recreation, California State Parks published a study (2005) examining the health and social benefits of recreation.  The study’s findings demonstrated that, among the physical health benefits of recreation are the following: reduction in obesity; boosting of the immune system; increase in life expectancy; and a reduction in the risk of chronic disease, including heart disease, diabetes, certain forms of cancer, and osteoporosis.

Okay, it may seem like common sense that physical activity has a positive impact on our physical health, so what are some other advantages?  Some of the mental health benefits of recreation indicated by the California study include:  improved quality of life in the areas of self-esteem, personal and spiritual growth, and life satisfaction; stress relief, and a reduction in depression.

A common finding of the research in the area of recreation is that leisure enhances health because it serves as a buffer to life’s stressful events.  In their study of 743 persons aged 55 and older, S.L. Dupuis and B.J.A. Smale (1995) found that regular participation in a variety of leisure activities is positively related to psychological well-being and negatively related to depression.

It is important to note however, that rather than become involved in just any activity, it is key that you enjoy your recreational activities.  We all know that we’re much more likely to engage in and continue with activities that we enjoy.  A study of college students revealed that boredom in leisure negatively influences physical and mental health (Weissinger, 1995).  The findings suggest that when bored in leisure, people are more likely engage in negative health behaviors such as substance abuse, smoking and isolation. Additionally, boredom in recreation may indicate a reduced ability to cope with stress.

Okay, so having fun by engaging in recreational activities that include physical activity can help improve our physical health and our moods, thus enhancing our life perspectives, but what about the benefits to society in general?  How can our making time to play and have fun benefit Cayman?

The California study found that among the social benefits of recreation are that it strengthens communities in terms of crime reduction, encourages volunteerism, and promotes stewardship.  The study also found that recreation can promote social bonds in terms of uniting families and supporting seniors and individuals with disabilities.  So, now that we know its good for both us and our community, how do we do it?

A 1998 article by Elizabeth Karadianis found that many of those who work and study at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “need reminders to integrate leisure into life”.  Reading this article, I found myself wondering if much has changed over the past 11 years.  Associate Professor Candace Royer, then director of physical education, was quoted as saying that “[m]ost of us who work at MIT like to work hard. But liking to work hard should not preclude wanting to have some leisure time, some family time, some time to yourself — and yet, we seem to put those things on a back burner.”

Dr. Margaret Ross, a then psychiatrist at MIT Medical who counselled students, faculty and staff, responded to the idea that many of the professors insist that their work is their leisure:  “It’s wonderful that you love your work. That’s a gift. But that doesn’t mean that having a change of pace isn’t good for you. It keeps you from getting too focused and from losing perspective.”  Maybe some are uncomfortable with the idea of relaxation, said Dr. Ross, because society neither encourages nor rewards leisure.  “At this point in the world, in a global economy, everybody is being encouraged to just work, work, work, harder and harder,” Dr. Ross said. “In our culture of productivity, in the MIT culture, and in the US business culture, you’re rewarded for doing more work.  Integrating your life is something you have to internalize. You need to know ‘I’m not getting enough sleep. I need a day off. I need a vacation.’ People aren’t encouraged in this work environment to go off and walk on the beach.”  Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Internalizing one’s life balance involves a conscious self-assessment.  In previous articles by the Employee Assistance Programme, the life wheel and its use has been discussed.  Take a look at your life wheel and assess how your fun and recreation aspect measures when compared to the other areas.

Are you happy with where you are?  Where do you want to be?  Can fun and recreation be integrated with other activities, such as spending time with family and friends?  Do you need to schedule leisure into your routine, make it an appointment or meeting that you have to keep?  Do you need to find something low cost?  We are fortunate here in Cayman to live in a climate and location favourable to many free activities such as swimming or walking or jogging along the beach.  You may decide to simply enjoy a game of football or catch in the yard with your children.

Once you have asked yourself and answered such questions, take a step toward improved overall health and get out there and have some fun!