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Why Play Is the Answer if You Hate to Exercise

Fitness Explorer Darryl Edwards has a message that might be music to your ears: It isn't natural for humans to exercise. Instead, he invites us to play. Here are his three tips for making the world your fitness playground.

By
Brock Armstrong
13-minute read
Episode #531
The Quick And Dirty
  • Exercising isn't a natural thing for humans and it is OK to not like it.
  • Adding the main elements of play to your movement practice can make it more enjoyable.
  • If you treat the world as your gym, you are never out of opportunities to move your body.
  • Think of yourself as your own superhero.

My guest on today's episode is a fellow named Darryl Edwards. I recently described him to a friend of mine as one of the strongest and most physically capable people I have ever met who also just happens to shun going to the gym, lifting weights, and any other narrow view of exercise. Intrigued? You should be!

Darryl Edwards, Fitness Explorer

Darryl is a former investment banking technologist turned movement coach and author. He is the founder of the Primal Play Method, and a physical activity, health, and play researcher. His Primal Play Method fuses evolutionary biology with the science of physical activity and play psychology.

Like me, Darryl has dedicated himself to inspiring humans—regardless of age, ability, or disability—to transform their health by making physical activity fun and engaging. His work has been featured on documentaries, TV, radio, podcasts, and international press.

Darryl is the author of the best-selling book Animal Moves and has released a range of fun fitness cards for adults, juniors, infants, office workers, and fitness professionals called the Animal Moves Decks. He regularly presents as a keynote speaker at events worldwide. His April 2019 TED talk, "Why working out isn't working out," has now been viewed over 800,000 times.

I encourage you to listen to click on the audio player above or listen wherever you get your podcasts to catch every nuance of our interview. (As you might guess from his accent, Darryl resides in London, England.) Or you can read a transcript of our conversation below.

The Interview

Brock Armstrong

I recall you actually saying the words "I hate exercising" at the begging of your keynote presentation at a health and wellness conference we were both at a few years ago. There was an audible gasp from the audience (or at least from me). Why do you say that you hate exercising?

Darryl Edwards

I feel that exercise is a relatively modern construct. Exercise was only developed to cater to the lack of physical activity that would come up by our normal day-to-day activities. We became more sedentary: from a hunter-gatherer population to agriculturalists to factory workers, to a decrease in manual labor. And with that decline, there's been a greater desire to incorporate physical activities such as exercise as a supplement, as a substitute, as a proxy for the lack of physical activity that we get for our normal daily lives. And so because of that, because there isn't a driver to move based on our occupation necessarily, it means we have to almost create the will to, and a habit to perform physical activity like exercise.

It isn't natural for humans to exercise.

So I suppose, to myself, I recognized that we shouldn't feel guilty about not wanting to exercise because it goes against the grain. It isn't natural for humans to exercise. It isn't at all. We have to create a desire, a want, an excuse in order to do so. And if those excuses don't satisfy you, if those things don't keep you going, what do you do?

Brock

I bet a whole bunch of my listeners just breathed a sigh of relief when they heard you say that we can basically give ourselves permission to not enjoy exercise because it's not natural. So, given that it isn't a natural thing to do, I know you've come up with something that does feel a little more natural and fun. 

What is Primal Play?

Darryl

The Primal Play method is really a combination of evolutionary biology—it's our biological driver to move. It also uses exercise science to validate the benefits—the health benefits: physical, mental, emotional—of physical activity and exercise. But recognizing that [exercise] is medicine ... it is helpful. But [the Primal Play method is also about] recognizing that for many people that the medicine is too bitter to swallow. It's too bitter a pill.

I use Play Theory or Play Psychology to make movement more palatable, more acceptable, more desirable. So for reference, when we look at children, children don't love exercise, but they certainly love movement. They love exploration. They love to experience the world around them for movement. You know, they want to play chase, they want to climb. They want to piggyback carry their siblings. They want to crawl over dad. They want to climb trees. They want to explore what they're capable of with movement and how they can interact with the world around them through movement.

That's what I felt was missing from my experience with movement is I was no longer embracing my inner child.

And most of that happens through play, not through being told what to do, not through sets and reps and times and durations. It's through "You know what? I want to have some fun. I want to see what I'm capable of."

And that's what I felt was missing from my experience with movement is I was no longer embracing my inner child. And by doing so, I actually enjoyed the entire process of engaging with movement. So I wasn't using play to dumb down the activities or to dumb down the exertion, to make it less serious.

You know, there's nothing more serious than play to a child to play when they're completely immersed. There was nothing more important in the world than what they're doing, and they rarely choose the easy options. They want the most difficult, most challenging, usually riskiest of the pursuits that they're permitted to do, right? Or even with that, they're not permitted to do, but that's what they want. That's what they're driven towards.

And I realized I wanted that again as an adult. I wanted to explore what I could do, what I couldn't do, what was really interesting about the limitations that I have and embracing those, as well as exploiting the strengths that I have. It was a miraculous transformation for me individually. And then I recognize that many other human beings feel exactly the same way because just like our DNA tells us to conserve energy it also tells us to be explorative, to play, to engage with other human beings, maintain that social dynamic. Communicate and express yourself through movement. Those are equally as important for us as human beings.

It isn't just about willpower; it's about the joy of movement.

So that was why I created the Primal Play method to explore that for myself, to give myself more opportunities to move, and to ensure that I could enjoy the process just as much as the end result. And for me, that's what made a difference in my own life. And then recognizing I wasn't the only person. Because of course, initially, I was like, "Am I the only person who will thrive by doing this?" And fortunately, there was an audience of people telling me "Oh my goodness, you're the first person I've heard express exactly how I feel and I no longer need to feel guilty."

And it isn't just about willpower; it's about the joy of movement. And that's what the Primal Play method is about.

Brock

I have had two opportunities to take part in your "playouts" in person and I loved them. And a couple of examples of what Darrell does in his playouts are

  • We partnered up with another person in the group and did slow-motion Kung Fu on each other. 
  • We had a tug of war, basically. One person was trying to stand still in place and the other person tried to pull them over.

And you know, the thing that I remember the most is, first of all, how exhausted I was by the end of the slow-motion Kung Fu. It takes a lot of energy! But the other thing I remember is all the laughter that ensued.

Can you give us a couple more examples of Primal Play just so people really understand what it means?

Darryl

Another game that we certainly played back then was something I called Primal Play tag, which is basically like a close-quarter game of tag or catch or whatever your listeners call it. We all know what that game is. We've all played it as kids. And so I created a version that is almost easier to play than when we were kids and we could run all over the place and chase each other for miles and never fatigue. I never remember getting tired when I was a kid, but of course, we did that. But there was this almost infinite supply of energy available to us because we were just in that sort of state, that flow state, that wonderful state of joy where everything else was secondary.

As you mentioned, laughter is also really important. So just adding laughter to your physical activity significantly increases the amount of calories burned, which is pretty phenomenal. So, it's a significant increase. It's like an almost exponential increase in exertion just by adding laughter to an activity. There's lots of research on comparing stationary bike for 10 minutes and people watching a comedy show for 10 minutes and you actually burn more calories watching a comedy show and laughing for 10 minutes than you do if you're on a stationary bike, moderate intensity. Pretty fascinating. So imagine when you combine exercise or physical activity with laughter. When you convert from working out to playing out, it's like a superset almost, it's an additional layer of benefits that you don't get from working out alone.

When you convert from working out to playing out, it's like a superset almost.

So I don't want people to see playing out as just "Okay, I'm going to swap playing out for working out because I just want to have a bit of fun." Actually, there's a wrapper of all of these other benefits: increased serotonin, a better dopamine response, more endorphins released earlier.

So we all know this feeling when you start going for a run, if you're a runner, the first few minutes are really uncomfortable—it always sucks. Your body's going "What the heck are you doing to yourself?" All these different energy systems that you're passing through in order to get to this efficient way of "Okay, now I can run for a good long run, and now I can start to feel better about it." But when you're playing, you don't have this "Oh my gosh, what the heck is happening to me?" You know, "Why am I doing this?" You're like, "Actually, this is really fun. I'm enjoying this." And part of it is because you're getting flooded with endorphins. So you're not feeling the physical discomfort and in the way that you would do if you're working out.

Brock

I appreciate what you brought up the idea that it is not an either-or sort of situation. It's not necessarily "I'm going to just replace all my workouts with only play." If you enjoy workouts (like I do), this is something that can supplement your workouts, for sure.

What is Animal Moves?

Brock

Now you've also got a best-selling book called Animal Moves, and you also have these playing card decks to help keep people moving. I really enjoy the challenge of moving like an animal but for those out there who haven't seen or tried this, please tell us more about the animal moves.

Darryl

So, basically, it's just about acknowledging the fact that we're animals. Quite a novel idea, but yeah, we're animals and we have certain capabilities. All of us.

Regardless of the limitations we may have, we all have a movement capability that we should be exploring. And by referencing the animal kingdom where we become aware that human beings are generalists of movement. We don't Excel in many areas when it comes to the rest of the animal kingdom. We're not very strong, for example. If we compare ourselves to an ant that can lift up to a thousand times their body weight, you know, so kind of strength to size ratio, they're far stronger than we are. You know the cheetah's a lot faster than Usain Bolt. Even sheep! Some sheep can outrun Usain Bolt, which is pretty incredible, right?

If I move more like the animal that I am, and I use the world around me for inspiration, I'm going to become a better human. My physical literacy is going to improve.

So once you start thinking about the animal kingdom and its capabilities, we can focus on mimicking the animal kingdom. And again, children do this naturally. They crawl like bears. They pretend to jump like kangaroos, they pretend to hop like rabbits. They stand on one leg and pretend to be like a crane. You know, they're not told to do this. It's instinctive because they observe the world around them and they want to mimic it. And I recognize again, as an adult accessing my inner child, that if I move more like the animal that I am and I use the world around me for inspiration, I'm going to become a better human. My physical literacy is going to improve. My mobility is going to improve, my strength is going to improve, my speed and power and endurance and balance and coordination and agility. All these things that we want from fitness can come about by becoming more human.

So, that was the reason for the book. And the Animal Moves Cards, fitness cards, was about taking that concept of the book, which is very structured (a 28-day program) into something that's more random, even more playful. You're at your desk. You've got a deck of fitness cards. You pick a card. You do a movement snack for 20 seconds. Then you get back to work and you don't know what's coming next. "Oh my goodness. Oh, wow. I've got the crocodile walk. Let me give that a whirl!" And then you pick your next card.

It's really important that we think about ourselves and expand the repertoire of movement that we take part in. We're not just bipedal creatures that are great at walking and running, and that's all we should do. You know, we're not just creatures that can lift and carry. So we just spend time in the gym lifting heavy weights. There is such a broad smorgasbord of movement opportunities available that we don't access because we don't feel as if it's something that we should be doing or can do. So the Animal Moves book gives you permission to explore your movement capability.

Brock

Yeah. And these are tricky moves! And challenging moves.

You recently put on Instagram ... I believe it was a Squat to Crab Walk. And after I saw that video, I did a few of those, and I was sweating hard, quite quickly! It's fun but it isn't just a silly inconsequential kind of movement. This is the kind of thing that can build some serious muscle. You can also build some serious coordination, stability, balance, all of that stuff from doing these things. And it doesn't take a lot of space. I love that. You actually do your videos in what looks like your kitchen.

Darryl

Yes, that's right. It's right in my kitchen—I don't have much free space. And certainly, one takeaway is just to know that your gym is wherever you are. That, for me, is the best way of thinking about my gym. I even term it my playground, I rarely use the term "gym." I think about the world around me as my playground, which means I can just play in all of these different spaces. Whether that's an actual gym, my kitchen, my back garden, a local park.

I think about the world around me as my playground, which means I can just play in all of these different spaces.

And I would also say that the best equipment we have is ourselves. Again, that was, for me, a significant shift in my attitude. Instead of chasing equipment and the latest and greatest in tech and gadgets, it's like hold on a second, you know, millions of years of evolution led to me being here today. And why am I not exploring more of what has already been crafted for me, what nature's provided for me? Why am I accessing more of that rather than chasing something, which may not be accessible for me? So, the world around you is your gym and, even better, your playground. And you are the best equipment you own. So utilize it when you can.

Darryl's fitness tips

Brock

OK, as always, I like to make sure my guests leave my listeners with some solid and actionable tips. So what are your three favorite tips to share with people who want to increase their fitness and wellbeing?

Darryl

As often as I can, I get out of my chair. I do a bit of movement—10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds. Instead of taking the lift or elevators, I take the stairs. When I can, I walk more than I normally would. I walk briskly more so than I normally would. So every opportunity you have to move a little bit more to break up sedentary time makes a difference.

Every opportunity you have to move a little bit more to break up sedentary time makes a difference.

And so there's lots of research supporting this idea of if you spend 30 minutes at the end of your day working out—even vigorous intensity, pretty hardcore workouts—or you spent 30 minutes throughout the day doing 10 seconds here, 20 seconds there, breaking up every 20 minutes of sitting time, [there are] more health benefits by breaking up sedentary time with insignificant durations of movement than stacking it all up towards the end of the day and getting that killer workout in.

The second [tip] is: The world is your playground. Seek out as many opportunities to move as you can.

And the third is to think of yourself as a superhero. And I don't mean this as a cliche. I mean this in the sense of ... I use Superman as an example. Superman, with all his abilities, still has significant weaknesses. Lois Lane is one, you know. His care for humanity is another. But he has one [weakness] which he can't do anything about, which is kryptonite. So the strongest being in the fictional universe, Superman, can die from brief exposure to kryptonite, right? So all of us have flaws. All of us have mobility issues. All of us have different reasons as to why we can't achieve particular objectives.

Be comfortable with the fact that you can't be great at everything. Focus on your strengths because that will get you further.

But if you think about the superhero, then there are so many things you can do. There are so many things you are amazing at that are easier for you to do. So, embrace your superhero, be comfortable with the fact that you can't be great at everything. And recognize that you may have some kryptonites that you can only just avoid. You know, don't waste your time on kryptonite. Focus on your strengths because that will get you further. Minimize your weaknesses, whatever they may be, and avoid your kryptonite.

So for me, my kryptonite is my chair playing my X-Box all day. So I have to do a lot of work to say "You know, my Xbox comes out once in a blue moon" because otherwise, you won't see me. I wouldn't be on this podcast now. That's for sure, Brock. I'll be too busy having it up on the Xbox.

So those are the three takeaways:

  1. Minimize sedentary time
  2. Create as many opportunities for movement as possible because the world is your gym or your playground
  3. Focus on your inner superhero and have fun with your abilities

Brock

Perfect. Darryl, thank you so much for coming on the Get-Fit Guy podcast. It was really great to chat with you again. And I know my audience is really going to enjoy your message and your videos.

Darryl

Oh, cheers. Thank you so much. You've been a great host Brock. I really appreciate it.

Brock

You can find Darryl at PrimalPlay.com, facebook.com/fitnessexplorer, instagram.com/fitnessexplorer, twitter.com/FitnessExplorer, (are you seeing a pattern?) and linkedin.com/fitnessexplorer.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.