According to leisure expert Dr. E. Christine Moll, "play" is as important to a person's health as keeping cholesterol levels in check and getting regular exercise. Moll, a professional counselor and professor of counseling and human services at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, explains that leisure is like medicine. "It airs out our brain. It renews our spirit. It gives us clarity of thought. It's a benefit to our blood pressure. It gives us life satisfaction. For all the dimensions of our lives: our physical, mental, spiritual and cognitive health " leisure time should be a necessity not a luxury."
Moll teaches students and professionals about the necessity for leisure in their lives. She defines leisure as anything that brings personal enjoyment to individuals and allows them to recharge their batteries.
"Work is the single activity we do most in our lifetimes. We work more than we sleep or eat," says Moll. "Our health and medicine are so much more improved than they were a century ago but we're going to wipe ourselves out because we're just working, working, working."
Moll also notes that the biggest abusers of the all-work-and-no-play lifestyle are Baby Boomers. "This generation really pushes to gain the American Dream and thinks nothing of putting in long hours or forgoing vacations for only long weekends," she says. "They often find it hard to put the breaks on, catch their breath and relax."
Moll's colleague, David L. Farrugia, PhD, chair of the Counseling and Human Services Department at Canisius and a professional counselor, says that by the time patients come to him, many have already visited their primary doctor for anxiety-like symptoms. Stress is often the culprit. "Physiologically, the body is able to adapt and function at high levels of stress but eventually it begins to take its toll on a person's mental and physical health," says Farrugia. In the professional world this condition is known as general adaptive syndrome (GAS), first identified by Hans Selye, MD, who pioneered stress research and is known internationally as the "father of the stress field."
If the physical concerns aren't enough to provoke you to put play into your life, Moll says to consider the long-term benefits of leisure. Under Moll's guidance, Canisius alumna, Summer M. Reiner examined the pivotal role leisure can play throughout a person's life. "Findings show that people who nurture leisure activities throughout their lives have a much healthier outlook physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and in their sense of selves, says Reiner.
Reiner found that children who actively participate in leisure activities tend to grow into confident, active and satisfied adults. "Extra-curricular activities for school-aged children contribute a lot towards their development," says Reiner, whose research was published in Counseling Today magazine. They stay out of trouble. They tend to be more excited about school. They have higher grades. They gain confidence. They enhance their social, physical and intellectual skills. Overall, they exhibit better mental health.
According to Moll, they also learn where their interests lie and that can be useful for parents and teachers. "If we can help young people identify what they like doing for leisure, we can help them turn those interests into productive careers," she says. But she adds that much like their Baby Boomer parents, today's young working adults can easily fall into the trap of not leaving themselves enough free time.
Reiner's research also found that parents who nurture their leisure lives tend to manage stress better and are more prepared to handle "empty nest syndrome." Equally important is that parental leisure promotes family stability and serves as a model for a healthy, balanced lifestyle for children. "Children who witness their parents enjoying hobbies and activities outside of work grow up to value the benefits of leisure themselves," says Reiner. But she warns that parents should not trick themselves into thinking their children's activities count for their own leisure. "Many parents say that's their enjoyment, watching their child's baseball or soccer game. But that is an aspect of parenting, not leisure. Parents need to develop their own leisure interests."
These interests help older adults live healthy, productive lives past retirement. Without the responsibilities of a job or children, it's common for people at this stage of life to experience an identity crisis. But Moll says that retirees who embrace leisure throughout their lives are less likely to lose that sense of self when they stop working. For those who stay active throughout their Golden Years, leisure provides structure to what appears to be an unstructured day. "It keeps them more mentally aware, emotionally connected and physically capable. Their pastimes give them a sense of independence and competency, even as they may be losing some of their other skills."
Moll says that the first step to adding leisure to your life is to determine how much leisure is lacking. "If you can't remember the last time you took time for just you, it is time for a change," she says. "What have you done for yourself, lately? When was the last time you did something just for fun or just for the health of it? If your answer is 'I read a book a year ago,' then you need to do more. Whether it's cooking, needlework, golfing or whatever, put leisure into your life. It's important."
Moll advises that once you commit to making a change, it's time to reconnect with your favorite pastimes. Not surprising, many people are so far removed from recreation they have forgotten what they once enjoyed. If you fit this profile, Moll recommends a few things: Spend time at the library to find out where your interests lie. Stroll the aisles at craft or sporting good stores for promising new hobbies. Talk with people about what they like to do for fun. "It's like food, you have to taste different things to find your passion," she says. "The greatest indicator of your leisure interests as an adult can be found in your youth. The whole idea of recreation is re-creation."
Leisure can include anything from a crossword puzzle to a pickup game of basketball, as long as it fits the following criteria: The activity must be freely chosen by the participant; provide satisfaction and adventure; arouse interest; require a commitment; serve as a sense of separation or escape; and most important, be pleasurable.
Moll warns that competition is not part of the leisure game. "If you didn't win that tennis match or were only able to bike two miles instead of three, that's ok. What is important is that you're relaxing. But if you get so wrapped up in winning that your blood pressure goes up or you make others around you miserable, that's not leisure. Yes, you can be sweaty or exhausted when you're finished doing whatever you were doing but for the purpose of being helpful, leisure needs to be restful."
Leisure also needs to be practiced, practiced, practiced. According to Moll, too many of us don't recognize an opportunity when it comes along. But a little downtime gives our brains a much-needed break. "Leisure is a lot like having a 'runner's high,'" Moll explains. "Our endorphins kick in, our heart rate changes, our blood pressure changes and our emotional well-being gets a time out. A little personal play time can also go a long way in our relationships. I tell my counseling students this all the time: We can't give what we don't have. We can't give to our family, friends, students or clients if we don't first take some time for ourselves."
Moll adds, "It doesn't matter what you do or that you may not do it well. Just start slowly and fake it until you make it. The point is to get out there, relax and appreciate the grandeur of the world once in a while. Play with abandon. Live life with intention. And be gentle with yourself."