The Simple Joy of Movement

Q. How do you make getting fit more attractive, fun and enjoyable?

A. Make a game out of it!


Exploration and movement from birth

Think back to when you were an infant and you mastered (what were at the time) incredibly complicated feats of balance such as standing, crawling, walking, running and jumping. You did all this without much encouragement or any instruction. Free from fear, you just bravely set about exploring your boundaries by trying out new movements until you got the hang of them. The motivation to learn these essential life skills wasn’t any underlying understanding of their importance or specific desire to learn or get stronger or faster…

It was the simple joy of playful, exploratory movement – performed just because you could.

As you got a bit older you probably still found movement itself inherently fascinating: discovering new and innovative ways to negotiate splashy puddles, a park path, a slippery slope or set of steps. Every obstacle was fun and challenging, and you felt compelled to fully explore the environment around you in every way you could possibly think of. With this attitude you didn’t demand extra incentives or rewards in the shape of gold stars or sweeties, nor did you need an ‘app’ to congratulate you on how many calories you’d burned or how many steps you taken that day.

Unlike adults, children have not yet had their natural, playful exuberance beaten out of them.

And then one day, all the play stopped. Do you remember the day you realised you were ‘too old now’ to walk along the low wall at the shopping centre? “Grown-ups don’t do that sort of thing” you rationalised. And in that very moment, self-consciousness set in, and your appetite for joyful movement took a back seat to ego, conformity and the appearance of maturity.

Essential Play

It’s understandable how this happens. We often make the fundamental mistake of considering ‘play’ as a childish, primitive or unsophisticated form of practice or merely a rehearsal for those far more meaningful ‘grown up’ activities to come. However the quality of play (or lack thereof) has been proven to have a devastating effect on the brain’s ability to develop properly.

We humans are essentially a physical animal and not, by nature, a pure ‘thinking’ machine. A huge portion of our brain’s capacity is given over to fine motor control and learning how to direct and maneuver our incredibly sophisticated bodies; without physical body movement to stimulate it, an essential part of our brain’s function as well as the body itself is deprived of the stimulation it expects.

Scientists who study Play, such as Dr Stuart Brown, all agree that play is an absolutely essential part of the learning process for all intelligent animals. The more intelligent the animal is, whether young or old, the more it plays. Chimps, dolphins, and dogs play more than snakes, turtles and bugs.

Surely, as the smartest animal of all, humans should play the most?

What is even more telling is that when ‘intelligent’ animals are deprived of normal playful activities, they fail to develop into normal functioning adults. When baby rats are deprived of opportunities to play they grow up to be aggressive and interact poorly with fellow rodents. Dogs deprived of play will show severe learning problems as adults and will even walk into open flames.

Frighteningly, Dr. Brown’s work also shows an undeniable connection between the worst, violent criminals and the absence of happy, care-free play in childhood. He found these individuals had almost universally been denied a childhood free from serious survival concerns and that their playful, joyful nature had failed to properly develop. Instead as children they had been perpetually threatened by a world they perceived as dangerous and failed to develop the social skills necessary to avoid violence as a primary tool of communication.

Playing is nature’s way of encouraging us to learn and develop by doing something we inherently enjoyable!

Instinctive Play

Instinctive Fitness is about rejecting the conventional fitness wisdoms of reps, sets and punishing repetitive routines and putting the variety, fun and exploration back into the world of exercise and movement.

The desire to move and play is in itself is how our very instincts drive us to learn and develop without instruction. Unfortunately, by adulthood, this playful attitude towards physical exploration and self-expression has been all but lost by an unnatural emphasis on calories burned, weights lifted, fat lost and miles run. While these are all favourable outcomes, they are also soul crushing objectives for many people, generally based on some troubled notion of self-dissatisfaction, not a natural desire to have fun.

So forget results, give up the targets and stop looking at exercise as labour!

Moving our bodies should be about child-like, playful vigour: running, jumping and climbing just for the purposeless pleasure of it or revelling in new movements and skills developed. Try to forget about the conventional view of exercise which dictates we should sweat, strain and strive in a joyless endeavour towards an arbitrary objective.

So what does this all mean to you?

The most immediate thing you can do right now is once again follow your instincts to make any kind of physical activity more fun. Either way, whatever you choose to call it, simply challenging your belief that exercise should be hard work and strenuous will put your brain in the right frame of mind to explore, to learn, to make creative connections and to avoid habitual mental roadblocks. In this way, improved performance becomes a guaranteed by-product of the process, not its number one objective. Put another way…

If you are not ready to have fun while exercising, you’re probably not going to develop much nor keep it up for long!

That’s why if you want to work with rather than fight against your 10 basic Survival Instincts and get in great shape, start by avoiding the term ‘workout’ altogether: pre-loaded as it is with strain and reluctance. The word work in itself rings an instinctive alarm bell in your subconscious to avoid before you’ve even got started! Perhaps consider using ‘activity’, ‘play’, ‘movement’ anything to make getting physical more appealing to your instinctively lazy, subconscious mind?

The problem is, for many, this evolutionary expectation is now buried in many beneath many of the daily habits that we take for granted as entirely advantageous. The PC, the shopping trolley, the sofa, the car and other modern accoutrements have robbed us of most requirements for daily movement

So what the solution if we don’t need to move any more? Do it for the sheer hell of it. Any type of exercise that is ‘instinctively’ and intrinsically attractive should fulfil our natural need to run, jump and play. In short, choose any exercise or movement that is primarily about having fun and challenging your body, without pain or hardship and within its own limits.

We help people practise our vision of ‘fitness through play’ through our Woodland Workout classes which we run around the North Oxfordshire area in the UK. Catering for all kinds of people, from new to exercise right through to seasoned athletes, we get them moving again in new ways, without pressure or expectation in as many creative, innovative ways as we can all think of in a beautiful, natural environment.

If you can’t get along to a Woodland Workout this playful movement can be practised anywhere; from the comfort of your front room, the garden or in the local park. It could even be as simple as swallowing your pride and rolling around on the floor with your kids, or perhaps jumping bushes or climbing trees like you haven’t since childhood.

Instinctive Fitness is about doing whatever it takes to find new ways of enjoying your physicality just because you can. You do it because it’s fun, because it’s good for you and because you owe it to yourself in a world increasingly convinced it needs joyless, prescribed exercise patterns to get in shape.