Why You Should Play MoreSomeone may wonder why you lift weights in your free time, and you point to the numerous physical and mental benefits of the activity. You can also highlight the distinction between training and exercise as further justification for how well you are using your time. If you spent the same time playing video games, you’d be hard-pressed to justify it beyond base entertainment. The negative association with nonproductive free time seems to have come out of a belief that the abundance of free time is a modern concept.
You Should Play More
Play, which is all-pervasive in our childhood, tends to become a tertiary concern as adults. As we have previously discussed, there is a theoretical psychological concept of The Hierarchy of Needs that identifies successful adult’s motivations. We tend to be preoccupied with physiological needs like hunger and thirst first. Next, we seek out safety. Then, if we have provision and protection taken care of, we move toward social goals like community and belonging. Personal goals like esteem and self-actualization are held in check by these other imperatives. Whereas most healthy children’s natural state includes some level of playfulness, play and recreation become choices as adults—often frowned upon as unproductive. Somewhere in the transition from the relative carelessness of childhood to the responsibility of adulthood, a stigma attaches to nonproductive, nonessential activities, things we do just for the sake of doing them.
As an adult, it can be difficult to find sports that you just do for fun. The idea of play becomes a logistical problem. Organizing a group of adults in your social circles to do anything outside of family or work time can be frustrating and nearly impossible.
Yet, grown men and women are regularly attracted to physical activities purely for play, being motivated by the joy of doing as opposed to competition. Outside Magazine did a feature and podcast on adult recess leagues. (Read here; Listen here.) These groups organize games of kickball, dodgeball, ultimate frisbee, cornhole, tetherball, and other playground games. They take care of the logistics. All you have to do is show up to play. While the games certainly get competitive, it seems as though most adults who seek out and join these leagues are mostly doing it for fun.
The question is whether nonproductive play is a valuable use of your time. For example, when it comes to lifting weights, we base most of our efforts around “Training,” not “Exercise.” Training is the organization of physical stress around a set of goals, meaning everything you do in the gym is designed to move you closer to a goal. In contrast, exercise is a physical activity you do because of how it makes you feel. Most people go to the gym with no plan in mind other than to get hot and sweaty and feel like they had a good workout. That’s exercise, and it most often leads to stalled progress and frustration in the gym. If we use the training vs. exercise paradigm as a model for life, then it seems like leisure time or pure recreation is like exercise. You could spend your time more productively on something else.
Playtime has costs. If our early ancestors were playing, they were “wasting time and energy, causing injury, and reducing vigilance that may open playing individuals to predation[.]”  Some critics of recreation leagues take a similar view, arguing that “Adult Recess” is just a millennial fascination because “adulting is hard.” Free time is the treasure of those unendowed with responsibility and the reward for efficiency. It shouldn’t be treated lightly or squandered with things that don’t make you better in some way. At least, that’s the argument.
The modern view of productivity is the contribution to personal or societal gain. Someone may wonder why you lift weights in your free time, and you point to the numerous physical and mental benefits of the activity. You can also highlight the distinction between training and exercise as further justification for how well you are using your time. If you spent the same time playing video games, you’d be hard-pressed to justify it beyond base entertainment. The negative association with nonproductive free time seems to have come out of a belief that the abundance of free time is a modern concept.
There has been an anthropological theory called the “surplus theory” that goes something like this: Humans used to hunt and gather only to subsist and procreate. Then we developed agriculture. Agriculture led to a surplus of food, which led to increases in population, political organization, specialization among individuals, further technological change, and leisure. The surplus theory has been thoroughly challenged both by the study of subsistence cultures and by modern observations. 
If the surplus theory were correct, we should be burdened by an overabundance of free time. Instead, modern society has devalued recreation and free time to the degree that studies indicate more technologically complex cultures have less free time, not more. Perhaps in a society that replaces survival with significance and the need to exceed previous generations, we pedestalize personal drive over play, recreation, and (to an extent) peace.
The odd thing is this. In the human historical timeline, play has been a constant in our cultures. Play, the physical expression of playfulness or physical activity designed to interact with other people and not geared to competition, likely has been around as long as we have been raising children:
“Play is apparently ubiquitous among mammals, occurs in many birds, some reptiles and fish, and has been reported even in invertebrates such as the octopus and a spider. In general, however, the frequency and complexity of play correlates positively with ever more complex behavioral repertoires in animals.” 
The prevalence of play suggests a necessary tradeoff that is beneficial to physical and cultural development.
The costs of play can also be seen as an indication of its importance. “[Play] has been ascribed numerous positive functions to justify the high investment it entails…. These include emotional, physical, and cognitive development such as stress coping, problem-solving, and skill development as well as predation and predator avoidance.” [Id.] Some researches posit and are studying whether play improves adaptability in adulthood. They believe that playfulness in parents leads to playfulness in young adults. If this also helps those young people become better-adapted members of society, then they suggest that playfulness begets adaptability, something both individual and socially beneficial.
Leisure also plays a critical role in cultural evolution. Free time allows for innovation and improvement. Play is likely a part of us. Aside from the physical benefits of non-competitive sports and exercise, they provide more generalized interactions with your fellow humans and your environment. Play and physical training help combat the tendency toward disuse in society. (Read more here: “Fighting Against the Crowd and the Principle of Least Effort.”) And, making an effort to expand your interactions through sport can help remedy a lack of connection with other people. On the Barbell Logic Podcast, Dr. David Puder has discussed the importance of connection in workplace and family relationships. He’s challenged us to actively form connections with other people, offering practical tips for improving your empathy and connection with others. (Listen to the Podcast “The Science of Connection with Dr. David Puder” here.)
A strong argument can be made that the anthropological significance of play contributes to the notion that we are healthier when we have meaningful connections. If we start to see the costs of play as too high, perhaps we need to examine not the play itself, but the culture that has grown up to make play undesirable. In the meantime, get outside, play, and be human. It’s good for you, even if you get a few scrapes, bumps, and bruises.
 Xingyou Shen, Garry Chick, Nick Pitas, “From playful parents to adaptable children: a structural equation model of the relationships between playfulness and adaptability among young adults and their parents” (available at DOI: 10.1080/21594937.2017.1382983)
 Garry Chick, “Leisure and Recreation, Anthropological Study of” International Encyclopedia of Anthropology (2018)