Excerpt from New Book: Playing With Movement

Here is an excerpt from the new book I'm working on - Playing With Movement: Simple Solutions for a Complex Body. A basic outline of the book is here. Following is the first couple pages from Chapter One, which is about play.

Two cheetah cubs are playing around as their mother tries to take a nap. Every once in a while they crash into her face and wake her up. She’s a good sport though, tolerating the foolishness for a bit, before batting them away and getting some more rest. 

Later that day, the cubs are playing again, chasing each other around, and eventually they almost get lost. Mom retrieves them so they don’t get eaten by hyenas.

That night, Mom is stalking some gazelles for dinner (partly to replenish the energy burned by the frisky cubs.) As Mom is getting ready to strike, the cubs are wrestling, eventually blundering out in the open, scaring away tonight’s dinner. 

How would an animal scientist look at this playful behavior? (Aside from the fact that it would make a great viral video if properly recorded.) First, the scientist might observe that this playful behavior is something of a paradox from an evolutionary perspective, because it has some very obvious costs. In addition to annoying Mom, it consumes energy, exposes the cubs to increased risk of predation and injury, and diverts attention from other important activities, such as hunting. Why would cheetahs (and all other mammals) evolve an instinct to engage in an activity with all these liabilities? 

According to the logic of natural selection, the answer is that it must have some benefits that exceed the costs. Otherwise, the behavior would be selected out. So what is the benefit of play to offset these costs?

Most scientists studying animal play would agree that it evolved to help animals build a resilient body, develop physical fitness, learn movement and social skills, and become more adaptable and creative in general. It is noteworthy that all intelligent animals play. The more intelligent the animal, the more it plays. Humans are the smartest, most adaptable animals and play the most. And they do the most playing at times of life when they need to do the most learning and developing. Therefore, play must somehow be very good at helping the body and mind adapt to the demands of the world, especially when those demands are variable and unexpected.

From this perspective, we can conclude that the cheetahs are playing because it is an instinctive and very effective form of “training” for the hard job of being an adult cheetah (which includes the rather difficult task of catching of gazelles while running at 70 miles per hour.) Their play is a kind practice of some of the skills they will use in the hunt - stalking, chasing, pouncing, biting, wrestling. And it also develops a general ability to respond creatively to a broad range of unexpected stimuli - social, physical and environmental.    

But is this playing around really the best way to get that training done? Here’s an interesting (and admittedly ridiculous) question: Would the cheetahs be better prepared for their adult lives as badass hunters and stars of nature shows if they went through a training process that was more like how modern humans train competitive athletes? Put anther way, what if they “worked” at movement instead of playing? 

The training process could start with some assessments. Sport scientists could analyze the physical characteristics of the best cheetah hunters to find the optimal cheetah levels of speed, strength, agility and endurance. Then they could assess the cheetah trainees to find areas where improvement is needed. For example, one cheetah might have excellent speed but poor endurance. Another might be lacking in agility or leg strength, or range of motion to stability. 

To correct any deficiencies, specific drills could be devised: One hundred meter sprint repeats for speed endurance; running around cones for agility; repeated jumps for explosive power; stretching to improve range of motion. Of course the cheetahs don’t really want to do these things, so they need to be constantly bribed with treats (Wildebeest biltong?) after each rep.  

The efficiency of the training process could be maximized with a periodized schedule of training blocks. The first six months would develop basic movement patterns, then they would add aerobic fitness, and after that a strength phase, then plyometrics and power development. With all this training, the cubs have less time for play and social life, which makes them a bit stressed and ornery. So the scientists make sure the cubs get adequate sleep and nutrition, and monitor their cortisol levels and other stress markers to make sure the cubs are not over training. 

Is this program likely to produce better hunters than the all-natural, organic, “just let ‘em play” program? 

This speculation is of course a bit silly, and the answer is unknown and possibly not even relevant to questions about human movement health and performance. But it does serve to draw a contrast between a “natural” play-based plan for movement health, and a more modern work-based approach, where there are precise measurements of objective variables like weights, times, and distances, and where discipline is required to complete tasks that are somewhat unpleasant and intrinsically meaningless. Which program is better? Should we get out of the gym and start running around like cavemen? Of course we don’t need to choose - we can incorporate elements of work and play into our exercise programs, and that is actually what I recommend in this book. But its good to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of either approach.  

In evaluating which program is better, we might remind ourselves of the “naturalistic fallacy”, which is the mistaken idea that whatever is “natural” is good for us, and that whatever is “unnatural” is toxic. This is clearly not the case – it is a very natural thing for cheetah cubs to sometimes get eaten by hyenas, or for playful human kids to fall out of trees and break their legs, and those things are both obviously not very healthy. It is also very unnatural for humans to do resistance training on machines in a modern gym, and science clearly shows this can be very healthy on multiple levels. Point in favor of working out in safe air-conditioned gyms with no hyenas roaming around.

On the other hand, there is clearly such a thing as an “evolutionary mismatch” - a situation where an animal becomes sick or stressed by living in a way that the animal is not well adapted to handle. Zookeepers and pet owners instinctively understand this concept. When their animals appear listless, depressed or generally unhealthy, they will often ask: what is it about this artificial environment that is different from the natural environment that these animals are well adapted to live in?   

Further, epidemiologists recognize that there are many “diseases of civilization”, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, which effectively don’t exist in hunter gatherer cultures. They hypothesize that these diseases are caused by an evolutionary mismatch– humans are not well adapted to regulate their weight in an environment where Twinkies and other delicious treats are available at the very low metabolic cost of getting in your car and driving to the nearest 7-Eleven. 

We might ask the same question in reference to our distinctly modern problems with movement health. Could it have something to do with some very “unnatural” aspects of our lifestyle, such as sitting in chairs for long periods of time, staring into computer screens, and not getting outdoors very much? Or exercising only in accordance with prescriptions from doctors and coaches, in highly regimented patterns that feel boring and meaningless? Certainly, it is not a naturalistic fallacy to ask these commonsense questions.

There is also an interesting rule of biology called Orgel’s second law which is that “evolution is cleverer than you are.” This means that animal characteristics, including behavioral instincts, that result from millions of years of natural selection are probably VERY good solutions to whatever problems they evolved to solve, and that human attempts to improve on them are likely to fail. 

Applying this rule to our instinct to play, we would conclude as follows: if evolution designed animals to play as a means to train them up to be heathy and functional movers, we would be wise to think twice before concluding that we have a better way to go about it. 

Put another way, play is the best tool for developing movement health that natural selection has come up with. That should make us curious about how and to what extent incorporating more play into our training and exercise programs can be beneficial.

Following is a brief review of are several lines of evidence showing the benefits of play in developing movement health in multiple dimensions - physical, psychological, coordinative, social, etc. 

Here endeth the excerpt. What do you think? Tell me in the comments.