Fitness hyperbole permeates the health and fitness industry, which is littered with exaggerations like “bigger,” “stronger,” “faster,” “insane” and “alpha” that dominate the claims of nutritional products, workout programs and even professional workshops. Fitness educator and anthropologist Frankof Exuberant Animal in Seattle, Washington, described such hyperbole in his blog as “outright violations of the very nature of health.” It sends a dangerous message to people who need to regain their physical, mental and environmental wellness as well as endorsing an illusion that they can “defy the laws of physics, biology and even common sense,” as they push their bodies to the extreme to attain a higher level of perceived fitness. While the fitness industry may be dominated by such competitive and reductionistic thinking and behavior, an emerging number of fitness professionals are bringing play and fun back to exercise.
Strength coach Richard Garcia, CSCS, who is also a nationally and internationally accomplished Olympic weightlifter and powerlifter, emphasizes the play concept in his own philosophy of movement. “We are more than our biology. We are more than our body fat, or how many push-ups we do, how fast we run or whether we can touch our toes or not,” he said in an online interview with Guardian Liberty Voice. “Those tests are assumed to be indicators of fitness, but they’re not really true fitness, let lalone health and wellness. Just because somebody has low body fat or can bench press his body weight says nothing about his overall holistic health and wellness. That perspective of fitness is a vestige of a mechanistic world view.“
“Play has, at its core, freedom and creativity. This is what distinguishes it from fitness and sports: the lack of rigidity, the plasticity in the activity,” explained neuroscientist Kwame M. Brown, Ph.D., who teaches psychology at Hampton University and runs Move Theory Child Development, a physical education organization that promotes play and games to coaches, teaches and trainers. “Play has relative amounts of that freedom and creativity. Sometimes we have complete freedom to do exactly what I as an individual would like to do. Pure, individual, free play. We have group play in which we get to follow our whims, and have freedom to create, but that freedom and whim must be balanced with that of others. There is still flux and plasticity in this. We negotiate, we co-create.”
Another reason why some fitness professionals and educators are bringing fun and play back to exercise is because of the less competitive and more supportive environment that play creates – an ideal “playground” for children and even adults to encourage and explore movement. Writer Gwen Gordon, M.A., wrote in The Huffington Post that people who feel supported are more likely to “develop a secure base and grow up seeing a world full of adventures, opportunities, and playmates,” as on a playground. However, if there is no reliable support, then people are more likely to see life as a “perpetual test where we have to continually earn our security and approval – a proving ground.” If the environment is unsafe, Gordon stated that the world may be more of a battleground – an alternate reality that is full of threats where needs are not met and there are “bones to pick.” In a proving ground, people will constantly show off their body, skill or personality to the world to see how “great” they are. On a playground, however, ego and judgement are almost irrelevant. Play fosters sharing in order to see what “cool games” can people conjure.
While the mainstream fitness industry is saturated with box gyms, 30-day challenges, “sports” conditioning and exercise equipment fads, Garcia suggests an alternative paradigm to fitness. “Simply put, movement based on fear, pain, and punishment-and-reward will never have broad appeal, and the carrot-and-stick model is not sustainable. But enjoying movement again like we did when we were kids will encourage people to move as long as they feel emotionally safe as well as have the permission and invitation to do so. For example, just go to a dance club and you’ll see even the most obese guy or girl dancing with their friends. Try to get those same people to join, let alone go to, a gym and see what happens. The current approach to fitness is an inherently maladjusted relationship with your mind and body. It is devoid of heart and spirit. Playful movement is a state of being and expression of our heart and soul in which we can find our voice and dance. So we have a healthy relationship with not only our mind and body but our heart and soul, too.”
For humans, the sense of “love,” in terms of caring and community, that is fostered in play is something that is lacking in mainstream fitness, according to Dr. Brown. “Others may disagree, but I think when love leaves, play has left the building. We simply have the exoskeleton of what could have been play. What do I mean by love? A love for the thing itself, and a love for others. If we hate each other, we are not playing. Again, that is just my opinion. But it is based on some pretty solid ground. Not infallible ground. Solid ground. Does this mean that only people who have a deep, long-lasting, abiding love for each other can play together? No. It means that this is the branch we are reaching out with. This is the thread with which we weave in the moment.”
“Active play also differentiates itself from fitness, which is an end result and not an activity, by the variety it creates,” Brown added. “Play is a seeking to create, to re-create – hence the term ‘re-creation.’ It is a seeking to discover and to explore. Is this the only way to get variety in movement? No, but within play as a global concept or within a given individual, greater variety is almost guaranteed through play.”
Psychology Today cited Bernard DeKoven’s new book, A Playful Path, when publishing that most people have been taught to distrust play while growing up because it is considered to be childish and silly. “Taught by people who have themselves lost the path, who were themselves taught by people who believed that fun was, can you believe this: sinful,” DeKoven wrote. “Taught by people who have inherited a broken culture where common sense has been replaced by common senselessness. Taught that if we work hard enough and long enough and live a life that is dull enough, we will be rewarded – when fun is the reward.”
Physical fitness is more than just sports, CrossFit, BroScience and the quest for the “ideal body.” The play aspect is necessary to overcome the one-dimensional perspective that many fitness professionals and enthusiasts adopt. Perhaps bringing back play and fun in the words “fitness” and “exercise” will get more people to engage in movement, curiosity and creativity without unnecessary competition and judgement. As Frank Fornecich wrote, “Hyperbole is not a strategy or a training philosophy. Rather, it is an expression of fear, insecurity and inattention. It’s a reflection of our inability to live in the ambiguous present, with ourselves as we are. Ultimately, it’s our fear of death that drives us to claims of outrageousness and extremes of behavior.”
By Nick Ng