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Major Revelation!

by Don

In the process of interviewing the athletes over 50 that I’ve spoken to, I have come to the conclusion that they lead lives that they love, and a major reason for this is that they have found a sport of physical activity that they LOVE. While interviewing Gene Wilken, an 81 year old tennis player, Gene asked me why we love our sports so much. At the time, I had no answer. I went back and polled the athletes that I had already interviewed and got lots of great responses. I did my best to take those responses and categorize them, resulting in 17 categories. These categories were:

feeling of lightness

feeling of freedom

physical challenge

mental challenge

social interaction


exciting ride

feeling of accomplishment

feeling of peace

physical benefits


physical sensation

endorphin rush


reconnection to youth


feeling of focus and absorption

I found that of these, the ones that occurred in the responses the most were those that we don’t tend to get from other sources. The highest rated reasons were:

physical challenge – 32%

competition – 32%

exciting ride – 28%

physical benefits – 28%

physical sensation – 32%

This was interesting, but I was not satisfied that I understood why we love our sports so much. It seems the responses were so varied, I wasn’t satisfied.

Last Thursday I went to a talk by John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. Dr. Ratey was talking about his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. I went to this talk because it is something I know very little about and I thought maybe Dr. Ratey could shed some light on the question of Why.

Among other things, Dr. Ratey talked about how we come from a lineage of hunter-gatherers and endurance predators. He said that 10,000 years ago, our ancestors would travel on average about 14 miles a day. Since then, we have created technology at an amazing pace through our ability to reason, and have eliminated the need for such physical activity for our survival.

Dr. Ratey explained that our genes have not changed much in the last 10,000 years, and we still carry with us many instincts from the millions of years of evolution that brought us to where we are today.

Dr. Ratey went on to explain that play is one of those instincts, and that it is an essential nutrient for our survival. All animals play, and this is well documented. This instinct to play has a crucial role in preparing the participant for the unpredictable and ambiguous challenges that survival throws our way.

Bingo! That is it….That is why we love our sports. The instinct to play is a deeply ingrained instinct! I now believe that the athletes I’ve interviewed have harness the primal gift of the instinct to play. The reasons that they love to play is very complex because our bodies response to play is very complex. Play is supposed to be complex in order to prepare us for the . This is a major revelation for me. I believe that I now understand Why.

Like anyone who has a Ph.D., now that I understand why we love our sports, I have to ask why we all don’t have the same level of love for physical activity as the athletes over 50 that I interviewed. Now my quest for the answer to that question begins, and I think I have some ideas already. I want to find some scientific data to back up or refute my ideas, so I will be working on that next. I would love to hear what you think about my latest revelation, whether you agree or disagree, and whatever else you have for me as feedback. Again, I see this as a major personal revelation, one that will probably influence my book significantly.

Thanks Dr. Ratey!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cheryl from thatgirlisfunny October 5, 2009 at 2:02 pm

The instinct to play prepares us to meet the unexpected. Practicing to meet the unexpected over and over again. Who knew play was so important? Fabulous insight!

Roger Pierce October 6, 2009 at 9:23 am

Keep up the inquiries and research..the answer is clearly not clear. There are an infinite number of factors to consider, and being humans we can give you an infinite number of reasons and answers and cloud the issue even more.

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