Humans are risen apes, not fallen angels. Highly-evolved, singularly-exceptional creatures with the potential to reach for the stars. But primates all the same, with a humble animal biology first forged on the African savannas some several hundred thousand years ago. That’s important to remember, now more than ever, for contemporary urban life increasingly serves to divorce humankind from our underlying species being.
Bundled together in large, overcrowded metropolitan centres where we’re compelled to obey the monotonous rhythms of the modern capitalist economy in order to survive—get up, go to work, come home, sleep and repeat—the city acts like an invisible cage. A concrete zoo which separates its inhabitants from an essential nature moulded by millennia spent in small bands of nomadic foragers. Of course the transition away from these ancestral ways of life is what has underpinned the tremendous social, cultural and economic advances of our recent past. The city in this respect is both a cage and a powerful impulse centre in which humanity’s great inventiveness can thrive. Yet we must still recognise—and where possible take steps to mitigate—the harmful side effects of this giant leap. Side effects since exacerbated by another, arguably even more significant transition from industrial to digital societies, in which brawn has given way to brain, the lathe to the laptop, and increasingly face-to-face communication to impersonal quarrelling.
As these great historical changes have unfolded an insidious toll has been inflicted upon organisms built for life in the wild. Overweight, out-of-shape and/or psychologically-troubled people have over the past few decades become a societal epidemic. So much so that in many of the world’s richest nations more of the adult population now meet some or all of these criteria than don’t, with those cultures that most glorify gluttony and slothfulness tending to fare the worst. (The US, for instance, is usually near the top of most obesity indexes, with the UK not far behind. In both countries eating junk food while watching crap telly is something of a national pastime.)
The double-edged sword that is contemporary urban life has thus meant that at the very moment when we humans should be celebrating our great progress as a species, paradoxically, we’re instead beset by a number of physical and mental afflictions. Estranged from our primordial roots, our sedentary lifestyles and poor diets are causing us great collective harm. Ballooning waistbands equal soaring healthcare costs and miserable, unfulfilled people. All is not lost however. If the realities of modern living have alienated us from our basic species being, then it’s imperative we try to reconnect with it. And one of the best ways to do this is through play, the maybe to some readers oxymoronic concept of adult play in particular.
At its core play represents a way to build a bridge with our underlying primal selves, that in doing so can help remedy the problems which result from the over-stimulated minds and anaesthetised bodies characteristic of the modern digital age. In the first place the locomotion (running, jumping, climbing, throwing, wrestling, etc.) involved in various play activities has real and obvious physical benefits for members of increasingly seated societies. On top of this playing games with and against other thinking, scheming people is both mentally stimulating and socially gratifying. Skills are learned, self-confidence gained and stress relieved. In no time participants will look and feel better, in turn creating an addictive feedback loop wherein they’ll want to play again and again. What’s more, play involving some kind of team structure can help to fulfil a deep-seated evolutionary urge to belong to a close-knit tribal unit, while play can also be used as a means of developing and maintaining romantic and kinship bonds the demands of modern life often place significant strain on. To play on a famous adage we might say a family that plays together, stays together.
So dispense with your inhibitions about looking silly, let loose and engage that wonderful machine we call a body. Grab some friends and family and collectively reclaim the joy of simply moving around like children do. Make animal-like motions even. We are made to move. And that, in short, is what we all need to do more of. From the parkour enthusiasts who turn concrete zoos into urban jungles to martial arts aficionados who participate in systematised roughhousing; from barefoot runners who attempt to make a direct connection with primitive man to sky-diving daredevils who harness modern technology in pursuit of death-defying thrills—there are many ways to skin this particular cat. Yet while the forms of play may differ significantly, the underlying benefits remain much the same.
The focus on play involving some kind of motion, moreover, should not be taken as to say playing board games or dress-up doesn’t have real benefits, even and perhaps especially for grown-ups given how it forces us utilise an imagination the daily grind of adult life has a nasty habit of dulling. That said, the simple truth is that kind of play that’ll do most to negate the harm caused by modern sedentary lifestyles is that which involves some kind of physical exertion, with the focus on playfulness above all having the additional advantage of dispensing with the chore-like repetitiousness and artificial nature of many run-of-the-mill gym-centric exercise regimens. Regimens, that is, which have an unfortunate though mostly deserved reputation for leaving their followers with inflated muscles and immobile bodies—something which whatever its aesthetic merits is functionally-speaking far from ideal. Movement-based play by contrast allows us to exercise intensely without realising, thereby delivering a most serendipitous of full-body workouts.
What, however, of those that don’t like to play, who think themselves far too mature and serious-minded to ever engage in such seemingly juvenile behaviour? The desire to play is a powerful inborn urge that in many must first be unearthed before it can be satiated. But make no mistake it’s there, no matter how deeply buried. After all, with the right incentives even the laziest of dogs can find enjoyment in chasing a stick. So too with humans and play. It’s something we’re subconsciously programmed to take pleasure in, no matter what our conscious mind tries to convince us of.
The challenge that faces society is how to unlock and realise this latent impulse in as many people as possible, not only for their personal benefit, but for that of the wider community too. And perhaps the first step in this process is to re-conceptualise organised sports and other forms of exercise for what at heart they are: A way for adults to play and in doing so reunite with and nourish an underlying species being that in a myriad of ways modern living conspires to suppress. For while work and education given us meaning and purpose, play is what makes us whole, what makes us human.