Brody: The Playground Solution—True Healthcare Reform

Despite the new healthcare law, the reform landscape still suffers from a missing link. I refer here to the concept known as play.

You remember play. As children, it was our job to play – tag, hide-and-seek, monkey-in-the-middle. Then adult responsibilities ensued and we stopped.

Now, instead, everyone is expected to exercise. But exercise has one little problem. Most of us hate to do it. Trudging on treadmills and hoisting dumbbells is repetitious and predictable. It feels too much like work.

No wonder so few of us ever get around to doing any exercise. Only about one in every three American adults engage in regular physical activity, while another one-third do none at all. Six in every ten health club members drop out after only six months.

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Play could be the solution.

We can fling a Frisbee in the park, or kick around a soccer ball in our backyard, or just ride a see-saw at the playground. We can climb a tree or just go fly a kite.

We can play most any time and most anywhere, whether in an office hallway or a supermarket parking lot, and do it either with or without kids involved.

Why bother in the first place?

For starters, playing will save us money. Last year, 45 million Americans shelled out $19 billion to join gyms. Yet most of that money went to waste -- 80% of members showed up rarely or never. A recent study showed the average visit to a gym thus amounted to $17, hardly a bargain.

Play is simply a smart investment. As we play, we also get our exercise. Play strengthens our hearts and lungs, tones our muscles, builds bone density, curbs weight gain and extends our lives. But play is more than merely a means to an end. It also enables us to achieve that elusive event known as having fun. “A man’s exercise must be play, or it will do him little good,” said George Sheehan, the physician running pioneer.

“Life,” Plato said, “must be lived as play.”

So, with summer soon here, let us play. In so doing, we can hamper the onset of chronic diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, maybe even stress and depression, too. Changes in lifestyle behavior can save an estimated 70% of the costs in the U.S. healthcare system. Staying healthy brings profound fiscal fitness.

Indeed, let’s make play a cornerstone of national healthcare policy. Government agencies can band together for a public health initiative urging adults to participate regularly in the practice of play. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can offer practical advice for adults returning to play. The National Institutes of Health can fund a long-term clinical study on the preventive properties of play.

But why stop there? Physicians can prescribe regular doses of play. Employers can hold daily recess for workers, all in the name of corporate wellness. We should declare a National Play Day and sign a petition pledging to play.

After all, the Obama Administration has all along advocated prevention. Our federal health agencies have long believed we should act early, with simple steps such as eating better, exercising more and quitting smoking, to save lives and money later.

Well, play is by nature preventive. Play could turn out to be as powerful a therapy as laughter, sex, red wine and faith in God. Play might be exactly the kind of healthcare reform the doctor ordered.

Bob Brody is a senior vice president/media specialist at Powell Tate, a division of Weber Shandwick Public Relations. His essays have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.