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The best new way to gain strength and lose weight: add a spirit of play to your workouts.
We're all aware of the health benefits of exercise, but for many it has become the eat-your-vegetables activity of adulthood—something we know is good for us, though we don't particularly enjoy it. But as children, fitness was not a routine, it was simply routine—a natural, integral part of our lives. It had nothing to do with reps or sets or goals of any kind; it was about climbing a jungle gym, running through a sprinkler, and jumping rope just for the fun of it. Movement that increased strength, endurance, and flexibility had its own reward: a good time.

Around the country, growing numbers of fitness enthusiasts have begun to put a childlike spirit of fun back into exercise. Alongside high/low aerobics and Spinning, you may also find classes called Recess and P.E. 101, where participants get their pulses racing in vigorous games of leapfrog, hopscotch, or tag. Other people, in groups or by themselves, are simply unleashing the child within while walking, running, or biking. By adding an element of play to workouts, getting and staying in shape can become something you might actually look forward to.

"Play is a very motivating part of exercise," says fitness instructor Mindy Mylrea. "When you're playing, you can exercise longer and harder without being aware of it. After a fun workout, you're not thinking, 'Oh, I'm glad it's over.' You're feeling alive and energetic."

Stacey Powells of Santa Clarita, California, tries to put a little bounce in her step during her daily walks with her two dogs. "I run up hills, walk backward down them, run zigzag across the street, create little obstacle courses out of trees and creek beds—anything to make my walk interesting," says Powells, 41. "I've taken step classes and found myself staring at the clock—doing something fun is much more appealing."

It was people like Powells who pushed the play trend into gyms several years ago. Many beginners complained that choreographed classes weren't cutting it for them. Although they liked the motivation and craved the camaraderie, they weren't crazy about the intimidating, hard-to- follow movements.

Next: Why "play" provides such amazing fitness benefits
"In the 1980s and early '90s, many exercise classes became very elitist," says Ken Alan, a kinesiologist and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. "Aerobics was great for those who had well-developed movement-to-music skills, but it alienated people who couldn't keep up with the complex choreography. They were looking for a more back-to-basics workout."

"I used to take aerobics classes, but they were a drag," says Nancy Peterson Walter, Ph.D., 65, of Mammoth Lakes, California. "All the women in the class seemed so bouncy, but I just couldn't keep up." Now she takes several classes that incorporate child's play: Splash, a pool workout involving games of catch and tag, and Y.A.H.OO, in which participants might play follow-the-leader or a Twister-like game to increase flexibility. "I try to create playful challenges," says Suzanne Nottingham, the instructor who designed these classes. "When children play, they are essentially cross-training: moving their bodies through many ranges of motion at different intensities. It's fun to get adults into that kind of situation."

Although classes like these are lighthearted, they aren't necessarily lightweight. A bit of exercise science theory explains why play can provide fitness benefits: "If you've been training for a while—maybe jumping on the treadmill a couple of times a week—your body becomes very efficient at that activity," says Keli Roberts, a personal trainer and group exercise instructor in Los Angeles. "But by throwing games and other fun activities into the mix, you demand something different and spontaneous from your body. And when you're doing something new, you are more likely to see gains in strength, stamina, and even weight loss."

Without a class, you can create do-it-yourself exercise fun if you're willing to let go of your inhibitions and look a little crazy. Jill Carson, 35, a personal chef based in Fort Worth, Texas, switches between skating, running, and biking workouts, always trying to infuse a little "silliness" into the mix. "I may go for a brisk walk and add some skipping in the middle of it," she says. "Sometimes I run through a sprinkler or challenge a kid to a bike race."

Carson added the fun element several years ago after realizing her workouts had grown stale and boring. "I was Miss Target Heart Rate. I was tired and not enjoying it—and was also walking the fine line between being highly fit and being injured. Now I don't even think of running or skating or biking as adult exercise," she says. "I have such a good time that I usually forget I'm working out."

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