The Health Benefits of Playfulness

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. It also makes him less healthy, less physically fit and less likely to lead an active life.

That second part isn’t from the original proverb. Rather, it’s from a study published this month in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

In the study, researchers looked to see whether there was a link between playfulness and physical fitness.

To measure playfulness, they used a questionnaire that tallies four different types of playfulness: playfulness in social situations, a carefree way of life, an appreciation for odd and whimsical things, and the ability to enjoy solving puzzles and playing with ideas.

Using the questionnaire, each participant in the study was asked to rate their tendencies toward playfulness. That person’s peers were also asked to rate the person’s playfulness. As you might expect, people’s ratings of their own playfulness and their peers’ ratings of their playfulness were moderately, though not perfectly, correlated.

Next, the participants went through a series of tasks designed to test their physical fitness. They demonstrated their strength, their flexibility. They climbed stairs while researchers monitored their heart rates. They also completed a survey on whether they maintained active lifestyles.

As it turned out, all these measures correlated with playfulness. More playful people tended to have higher endurance, more flexibility and better cardiovascular fitness. They kept more active lifestyles on average.

This was true whether the researchers looked at people’s self-reported playfulness, or their playfulness as estimated by their peers. Overall, the researchers estimated that self-reported playfulness explained 3 percent of the variance in people’s physical fitness and 14 percent of the variance in their tendency toward pursuing an active way of life.

The researchers point out that traditionally, playfulness is a trait we most often talk about in relation to children. But this evidence for a link between playfulness and health suggests that adult playfulness, even if it’s less frequently discussed, might turn out to be serious business.

Image: Flickr/Chamathka Udumalagala Gamage