Playing away Stress on the Kokopelli Trail

IMG_6641I recently returned from a wonderful four day getaway to Fruita, a little place on the Western Slope of Colorado where the Colorado River chisels deep canyons into surrounding sandstone. I camped out, ate good food, and spent a lot of time mountain biking, hiking, and laughing with a great group of friends. Usually when I go on a trip, the anticipation is as much a part of the experience as is actually placing my foot (or knobby tires) on new territory. This time, though, I was so busy juggling multiple projects before I left that I barely had time to think about the trip, much less look forward to it. When it did cross my mind, it popped up as just another “to do” on my calendar. On the day of departure, packing, prepping, and loading took longer than anticipated and we pulled out of town later than we’d hoped and more stressed than we’d have liked. Somewhere along the stretches of highway between here and there, though, my mind let go of upcoming meetings, unfinished projects, unseen clients, and unwritten pages. Little by little, the vibrant, distilled sky that covers the Rocky Mountain State like a blue aerial blanket drew my attention, as did the tufts of pink blossoms erupting from the crabapples and the snowcapped shoulders of the mountain peaks. I relaxed into the easy banter and reflective musings that tend to pepper any long distance trip, and by the time I set up my tent, I was laughing aloud as the wind and I played tug of war with my half dome.

Although the hike we did was technically a walk in the park, a beautiful 5 1/2 mile walk through Colorado National Monument Park, our mountain bike rides were anything but. IMG_6647Exploring the Kokopelli trail system and the Book Cliffs, our longest ride covered 18 miles of tire-puncturing scrabbly canyon riding complete with technical features, hike-a-bikes, thigh popping ascents, and shock rocking descents. In contrast, our evenings were mellow, filled with the warm aromas of dinner cooked over tiny backpacking stoves, animated accounts and opinions of the day’s ride, impromptu tandem yoga, and rounds of word-linking Bananagrams. Four days later I drove home with the the dusty desert in my rearview mirror, the mountains towering ahead of me, and the realization that in those four days, my stress had melted away into the canyons as the snow on the peaks would soon do.


Play is an amazing stress-buster. Since 75-90% of all doctor visits are for stress-related issues, it’s a shame that almost no one gets invited to “come out and play” after the age of eight. Stress and the physiological changes it creates in the body contribute to the development of heart disease, cancer, stroke, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and more. Play reduces stress hormones. When we’re under high stress, our sympathetic nervous system (the part of our nervous system that takes control when it perceives an emergency) becomes aroused and increases our heart rate, changes the way we metabolize fat and carbohydrates, increases inflammation in our bodies, makes us feel anxious, and focuses our attention very narrowly. A playful and relaxed mood stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that supports regrowth and regeneration and turns down those damaging stress hormones). Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system enhances immune function, lowers blood pressure, supports digestion and utilization of our food, and promotes imagination, creative thinking and the ability to problem solve. A playful attitude and laughing with others can help our relationships, fostering intimacy, compassion, and trust. Play also boosts endorphins, those neurotransmitters that promote a sense of well-being and decrease pain. Finally, inducing positive emotions, as through play, can even stimulate the growth of new neurons in adults! Perhaps if we played more, we’d develop fewer stress related disorders and remain healthier as we age. George Bernard Shaw  said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” And he didn’t even own a mountain bike.


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