zen habits : breathe

The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play

By Leo Babauta

The Great White Whale when it comes to forming new habits, for most people, is exercise.

Along with eating your vegetables, meditation, getting good sleep and quitting smoking, exercise is probably the most important habit change anyone can make.

And yet, most people struggle with creating a lasting exercise habit.

The solution is to replace the “exercise” habit with play.

Remember what it was like to go outside as a child? I do, because I watch my kids every day. They run around, pretending they’re warriors and wizards, ride their bikes like they’re flying, swing like they’re about to take off for the stars.

Kids don’t care about what they “should” do … all they want to do is have fun. And so they play.

Why Exercise Sucks

I actually love exercise. I love doing a weight workout, going for a run, doing a bunch of pushups. For me, it’s play.

But for most people, it’s grueling and tiring and uncomfortable and boring. When this is how you see the new habit, you’re very unlikely to stick to it for long. It’s possible, but only if you have an incredible amount of commitment, motivation, determination, accountability. And even then, it’s still likely to fail after awhile.

We procrastinate when it comes to exercise, even when we know it’s good for us. Even when we know that we’ll feel better afterward. It sucks because it’s just another difficult chore that we’re adding to our already full days. And even when we have nothing to do, the lure of digital fun is much stronger than the call of the elliptical machine.

How to Form the Play Habit Instead

If we don’t enjoy a habit, we’re not likely to stick to it for long. We rationalize reasons to put it off. This is objective fact: every single one of us has done this, probably many times.

So what’s the solution? Do we just wave our hands in the air and get chronic diseases instead of exercising?

No: we get moving, but we make it fun. We turn activity into play.

Think about the exercise you’ve been putting off, and whether it sounds like fun. Now think about running around wildly, dancing to loud music, racing your kids or best friend, taking a bike out to explore your city or bike trails, doing a pushup competition with friends, taking kickboxing classes with a group of family members, going for a hike with your honey, playing soccer or basketball with friends.

For some of you, some (or all) of these will sound like fun! Perhaps not all of them are appealing, because we each have our different idea of what fun is. I like the idea of strapping a bunch of bricks to my back and doing pushups and bearcrawls and long-distance running/hiking, but I might have a perverse idea of what fun is. Your idea of fun might be very different.

Whatever sounds like fun, do that! And do it not because you “should” but because you want to enjoy moving. Don’t try to hit a certain number of minutes, or any goal — just play! Lose yourself in it. Make it the most fun you have all day. You deserve that kind of play break.

Give yourself little play breaks at different times of the day. Set alarms to go take a 10-minute play break. Make it the reward at the end of your workday. Let play set the tone for your morning, kicking off a day of creativity by releasing your inhibitions.

Go wild.

Be spontaneous.

Let yourself free.

And do it with a crazy smile on your face.

Forming the Habit

If you’d like help forming the play habit, join us in my Sea Change Program as we work on the Get Active habit. We’re not trying to form the exercise habit, but to do some kind of active play each day.

Sea Change is my program for forming one habit a month, and it comes with articles, a couple videos, a live video webinar, daily email reminders, and an active community of people supporting each other’s habits. Plus a large archive of past habit modules.

Join Sea Change today and get started playing.


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