Once limited to the playground, now the games we played as children are shaking up our workouts and bringing the fun factor back to fitness. Dig out your hula hoop…
If you thought the days of playground cops and robbers, monkey-bar races and hopscotch were gone, think again. After the recent crescendo in punishing HIIT classes – where the onus is on doing as much as is humanly (and painfully) possible in a short amount of time – rep counting and run-until-you’re-sick sessions on treadmills, we’re beginning to rethink the way we approach exercise. And we’re doing it with ‘play’ in mind.
Yep, it’s back to the old-school fitness of our youth. While previously we would have done everything in our power to escape double PE (‘that time of the month’ being a popular excuse), now we’re doing it whatever the weather and all in the name of fun.
‘Nothing lights up the brain like play,’ says Dr Stuart Brown, a pioneer in research on play, in his 2008 Ted Talk, which has been viewed nearly two million times. ‘If you’re having a bad day, jump up and down, wiggle around and you’re going to feel better.’ And he’s right. Studies have long shown that enjoyment plays a fundamental role in our ability to stick to an exercise routine so, the more you enjoy it, the more consistently you will work out and, subsequently, the fitter you’ll get. ‘In the old days it was about working out as a punishment for eating too much, rather than something you could enjoy doing,’ says founder of Frame, Joan Murphy. ‘Now we know the best workout for you is the one you actually turn up to, choosing something you enjoy is key.’
The old adage that we don’t stop playing because we grow old but, rather, we grow old because we stop playing, couldn’t be more true. And in our modern, time-poor world, it’s never been more important for us to immerse ourselves in fitness that’s as much fun and social as it is good for us.
FITNESS FOR FUN
One of the UK’S most prominent adoptees of fitness for fun is Charlotte Roach, founder of fitness club Rabble, whose tagline is ‘stop exercising, start playing’. After a serious amount of training as a professional athlete (and Olympic hopeful), where it was all about the results, Charlotte returned to ‘normal’ exercise – and Rabble was born. ‘I went to the gym and noticed that it was a total chore for everyone involved,’ she says, adding that she couldn’t motivate herself to go as she didn’t need to achieve the results any more.
Rabble (from £14 per game, joinrabble.com) offers users a selection of ‘classes’ that take playground fun to new levels. ‘ Think old school kids’ games, like British bulldog, dodgeball or capture the flag,’ says Charlotte. ‘Netsketball is another favourite – a cross between netball and basketball. We never play traditional sports.’ So far, so fun, but what age range does this workout attract? The average age, she says, is 29 but they have women and men up to and over 55 too. And, no matter what your age, you can burn up to 1,000 calories and get fit without even realising it.
Part of the beauty of the club is the community it fosters. ‘People now move around a lot for work and communities seem to be shrinking,’ says Charlotte. ‘ With this, you can tap into a sense of community when it suits you,’ she says of the fact that many people can’t commit to the practice and games for regular team sports. ‘ We want to make this accessible so that even if you haven’t played netball for 10 years, you can just join in.’
Membership programmes like Movegb (from £5.99 per week, nationwide) and Classpass (from £35 per month) are also a great no-commitment way to try different classes. They offer everything from Rabble to trapeze and circus-inspired sessions, all under a pay-monthly membership.
IN THE PLAYGROUND
There’s a real body benefit to running around and playing like a child, too. ‘At no time in our lives are we at a higher level of functional fitness than when we are children,’ says Jake Lawrence from London training gym F45. ‘All the playing, sports and bounding around meant our bodies weren’t marred by sitting at a desk for 10 hours or crouched over our phones, both of which lead to inactive muscles and poor
posture.’ At F45 they utilise the activities we used to do without a second thought: hopscotch, bear crawls, skipping and jumping. Exercises like these get lots of different muscles working and challenge the way our bodies move from day to day.
One of Chelsea-based super-gym KXU’S best-loved classes is The GAMES, which was originally going to be called ‘Playground’, says trainer Anna-maria Ronnqvist. ‘ We wanted to create something that reminded people of the fun they had as children, a time when playing with your friends in the park, an adventure playground or just running around in the street was the highlight of your day and kept you fit and strong.’ These elements of childhood play manifest themselves as tug-of-war, fireman carries, monkey bars and flipping a 160kg tyre over. So yes, it’s play, but no, it isn’t easy and will push ‘players’ to their limits.
Anna-maria also notes the ‘friendly competitiveness’ makes people more likely to come back. ‘ When we work together and have fun, we’ll keep doing it. Everyone leaves with a smile on their face and if you can get fit, strong and feel more body confident, you’re on to a winner.’
There are the classes that focus solely on specific playground activities. Remember hula hoops? Reportedly loved by Michelle Obama, hula-hooping classes are all the rage thanks to their ability to get hips swerving in ways we never knew existed. Take Hulafit, which uses weighted hoops for an extra challenge in its aerobic workout or Hula Dance at Virgin Active, which promises to burn up to 350 calories per class (not that you’ll be counting), make you laugh and tone your core.
Hoops are also used in the closest thing we adults will get to a climbing frame: aerial fitness, during which you perform a sequence of moves on – and around – a suspended hoop. ‘As an adult, you become really conscious of whether you’re doing everything right, but aerial allows you to hang upside down, let loose, and feel like a kid again,’ says Gymbox instructor Hattie Grover, who favours the ‘hock hang’, where you hang off the hoop from the back of your knees – a real confidence booster.
Skipping is another old favourite, but while the old version involved one rope, two friends twirling it from either side and countless people jumping in, the adult version is simpler but no less challenging. Gymbox’s Whiplash class, for one, makes skipping the sole focus and is a great all-over body workout that also improves coordination and balance. Add to the equation that an hour of rope skipping can burn 1,300 calories and you’ve got yourself one of the best workouts.
BEST OF THE BOUNCE
Was there any better feeling than knowing your best friend had a trampoline in their garden? Definitely not. Unbeknown to us, that trampoline was an insane workout; a 2012 study by NASA found that 10 minutes of bouncing on a trampoline gives a better cardiovascular workout than 33 minutes of running. ‘ Trampolining doesn’t put any added pressure on joints,’ adds Joan Murphy, whose Rebounding class at Frame caters to all fitness levels and ages. ‘It also activates lymphatic circulation, helping to cleanse the body from impurities and improve the immune system efficiency.’
BE A BALLER
Whether you loved or hated the coloured bibs, for most of us netball has become a thing of the past. That is until recently, when a whole host of us began the pilgrimage back to the sport. ‘I wanted to get myself a hobby outside of work, have some fun and get fit in the process,’ says Lucy, a 25-year-old property surveyor, who started playing netball weekly last year. It’s a similar story for 46-year-old Hannah. ‘As an adult, it’s rare to get out of your comfort zone, but I’ve really enjoyed getting better at something I previously did very badly.’ She trains weekly and plays in a fortnightly league. Laura Francis, a personal trainer at Mortimer House and keen netball player, points out that it’s perfect for improved agility and stamina, while the spin turns, pivot jumps and interceptions ‘work the body plyometrically’ (muscles constantly expand and contract) and in a much more dynamic way than a HIIT session.
There’s also the team spirit, which is rare to find outside of work nowadays. ‘ The team motivate each other and enjoyment can feel contagious,’ says Dr Josephine Perry, a sports psychology consultant at Performance in Mind. ‘Other people can help us work harder or at least make the efforts feel easier.’ Research has found that you are much more likely to stick to a goal and to follow an exercise regime if you have other people to train with. And you can forget the orange segments post-match, and expect to go out and socialise instead.