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All work and no play: Are men better than women at having fun?

In a new book, Katrina Onstad argues for the life-changing benefits of leisure time. But, she discovers, guys are actually better at unwinding. Find out why in the excerpt below.

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Katrina Onstad: The Weekend Effect excerpt for Chatelaine

According to The New York TimesSunday Routine,” everyone is working out on Sunday. I love-hate this weekly feature, and my own Sunday routine includes devouring it, a hilariously rarefied diary of the average Sunday of completely non-average people wherein the vast majority of subjects profiled claim to exercise. Many are merely going to the gym but some are doing much more appealing activities: DJ Ruckus wears special compression pants to box; designer Cynthia Rowley goes to an exercise class where an instructor leads her and her kids through a class on stationary surfboards.

The “Sunday Routine” is a delicious hit of aspirational journalism that’s both enchanting and appalling for its privilege and obliviousness. Week after week, New York executives, wedding planners, actors, and pediatric neurologists diarize a Sunday that’s brimming with meditation, brunch, and always, always, always exercise. They work frequently, too, but somehow this is a virtue: “Sunday is a phenomenal day for work,” architect Rafael Viñoly said. Many Sunday Routiners check emails, take calls, or visit the office. Biographer Robert Caro puts on a suit and tie and heads to his office on 57th Street.

The feature’s popularity speaks to a lacuna: we need a weekend prescription because we don’t really know what to do with our leisure time. With our own weekends so compromised, why not take a voyeuristic interest in what other, more important people do with theirs? In that way, The New York Times “Sunday Routine” is beyond mere rubbernecking; it’s like a Victorian etiquette book. And the instruction is: work out on the weekend. Whether or not you, like Cynthia Rowley, are actually exercising on Sunday (everyone is probably also not going to Central Park, either, which so many Sunday Routiners report), you know that you should. The benefits of exercise are well documented: stress reduction, longer life, increased happiness — no news flashes here.


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Americans do exercise more on the weekend than during the week. For many people, it’s the only time in a busy work schedule that allows for fitness, and so they play weekend warrior and pack it all into the week’s sole workout. Nothing wrong with that: weekend exercise will, research suggests, make you a better worker on the other five days. One long-term study showed that over nine years, those who used their leisure time for physical activities felt they had better control of their careers and less strain at work than those who were physically inactive over the same period of time. A Forbes article titled “14 Things Successful People Do on Weekends” suggests that “networking is a lifestyle” and if you’re a hedge fund manager who wants to go riding on the weekend, don’t miss the opportunity to bring other hedge fund managers along.

Unless, of course, your idea of fun is riding a horse while talking hedge funds, this is depressing. The melding of exercise and work — the need to justify the time spent exercising in terms of productivity — is one of the ways in which exercise has been leached of fun. Even the word “exercise” feels sort of punitive and dated, like “calisthenics.” And the weekend is supposed to be fun. So if you know you should exercise, but you struggle to get to the gym because you don’t want to use up your precious weekend time hamstering along a mechanical belt watching CNN, perhaps it’s time to change it up. People who really love working out on the weekend don’t usually call it “exercise.” They say, “I have a regular tennis game.” Or, “I play pickup basketball.” The best reason to get active on the weekend is simple: play.

“The reason women have less time (and maybe more stress) is because they do more of the domestic work than men.”

 

The drive to play is nestled in the brain stem, the ancient survival centers, and has endured as the brain has evolved, according to Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play and the author of the book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul. We play, like all social mammals, to survive. The consequences of not playing are dire. As Brown points out, the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression. He’s examined the “play histories” of men who grew up to be murderers, and concluded that in this population one shared characteristic is a childhood devoid of play. He’s an advocate of “remedial play therapy” — early intervention for kids who may not be getting enough play, a reality with long-term social consequences. Play must be voluntary, purposeless, and done for its own sake. The player loses the sensation of time passing and self-consciousness recedes. Real play also has “improvisational potential” — the outcome is unknown, and you want to keep on going to see where it leads.

Kids are deeply, intuitively in touch with play. My son, Jude, now twelve, loves sports, all of them. If there is a sport on offer, he is there. This is a kid who comes home from school and says happily, “I signed up for volleyball even though I suck at it!” In this past year of experimenting with better weekends, we’ve been trying to make sure our kids have more free time on Saturday and Sunday, and no one takes more advantage of this than our son. When he has a block of free time, he calls (texts) a friend, and then packs a shopping bag with a basketball, a soccer ball, and a glove, tucking a bat under his arm, as if anything could happen. He goes to the park and he plays and plays, returning home for water and food, like our outdoor cat. Then he exits again. He is all smiles, sweaty and a bit disgusting by the end of the day. He sleeps deeply. He’s a kid who rarely gets lost in a book, but easily gets lost in a game. I hope he never grows out of this.

For some of us, the benefits of play can arise at a yoga or fitness class (though there’s certainly more control in a gym workout, and less improvisation), but it’s sports that are truly playful. It’s sports that encourage abandon.

Every Saturday, Neal plays pickup ultimate Frisbee in a park in Pasadena, California. He moved to California for the reason everyone does, and now he works as a production assistant in film and TV, and acts, too. Film and TV workers have notoriously unreliable schedules: a shoot can sometimes average seventy hours a week. It’s a feast-or-famine game and highly competitive; if you can’t work a fourteen-hour day, someone else will. Weekends don’t exist. In many productions, the directors, writers, and producers — “above the line” — are well compensated, but for those below the line, it’s a middle-class pay scale with very long hours, sleep deprivation, and health risks. Fifteen years ago, an assistant cameraman on the set of the film Pleasantville worked a nineteen-hour day, and crashed his car while driving home. This event spurred veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler to start a movement for shorter days and more humane schedules in the industry called 12 On 12 Off (a backwards step from the century-old plea for “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!”). It had little effect. Wexler died in 2015, and the movement continues, as do the torturous hours.

Neal notices the work obsession around him, and he sees what he doesn’t want to become. “I see people who get sucked into their careers and they never take a breather,” he says. “They seem wrecked. I look and I don’t see a single smile. Their eyes don’t light up. It’s like, ‘Are you enjoying your work? Your life?’ It’s like, if they’re not always busy, then they’re failing.” So he tries to get people to come out with him for ultimate. He posts about the weekly game online, and when he’s on a set, he urges people he meets to join in.

No matter what his work life looks like, Neal does his best to keep his Sundays free. He’s been in California for only three years, growing up in St. Louis and moving west after a stint in the air force. He had played ultimate only once before, but he’s tall and athletic and immediately loved how the game is physical but technical, too. A win or loss is at the mercy of distance, angles, and wind, not just strength. When he plays, he is completely immersed in the game. “It’s just fun,” he says. “It’s a friendly and competitive way for me to relieve my stress. It’s a complete venting process.” It’s social, too; players have barbecues together or go out afterward. It’s an unmovable date on his calendar.

One person who doesn’t join in is his girlfriend. She’s doing yoga, or getting a massage, he says. According to the Pew Research Center, men spend about 5 hours per week more than women on leisure activities; it’s a big umbrella that includes games, sports, and TV. That’s an average for all men (between eighteen and sixty-four), while men with children under eighteen are getting only 2.7 hours more per week.


Related: Work less, play more. Why a bit of fun is good for you


My husband is much better than I am at protecting play. One night a week, he plays pickup basketball; he’s in a Fantasy Baseball League. For women, those kinds of personal pleasures seem to be the first to go, sacrificed for work or family. When asked, in a survey, why they don’t exercise, women answered: too tired. The reason women have less time (and maybe more stress) is because they do more of the domestic work than men.

But domestic work is not all equal: “child care” falls under the umbrella of domestic labor in most research. For many working mothers the weekend can feel like the only slot in the week when it’s possible to spend time with their kids. This makes it hard to throw the gym bag over the shoulder and say “See you this afternoon!”; those pie-eyed progeny at the window miss you, and you miss them, too. All of which leads to no exercise, or something like “the 5:00 a.m. club”: women rising before the kids wake up, exercising in the dark, alone.

This is fine, but it’s not play. When women do exercise, it’s more likely to be in a class or at a gym than as part of an actual sport — the option to play is rarely on the menu. Why (many) women don’t play sports is a question that’s tangled in some sticky old ideas about masculinity and femininity. In adolescence, there’s the gym class feeling of your body changing in public, under scrutiny; the volleyball smashing your period-swollen belly; playing with boys who never passed, or made fun of you for how you ran. Aggression and competitiveness — the stuff of sports — remain lauded traits in men; the same behavior is often deemed “bitchiness” in women. Even with all the progress of past decades, girls still receive a screwed-up message about what they’re supposed to be doing with their bodies: women and girls are more likely to be seen in the media pruning and cultivating and displaying, à la the Kardashians, than sweating and triumphing on the pitch, à la Abby Wambach. If girls rarely see women playing professional sports on TV or in the media, there’s little to — pardon the pun — shoot for. It’s no surprise that the organization Keep Her in the Game notes that at around age fourteen, girls start to drop out of sports.

 

“When exercise is in service of something else — thinness, and impossible beauty standards burned deep into the neural pathways around, say, age fourteen — then it feels like obligation.”

 

At ten, my daughter is hyper-social, and she and her friends do play: they build dollhouses out of cardboard and scrap fabric, and dress up and dance around the house. She shot a seriously touching stop-motion movie about two estranged rocks that find each other at last. But her play is often about hobbies and crafts, rarely about sports, despite being an athletic kid, fast and long- limbed. She seems to play — cheerfully — only in the organized games we pay for. The love of sport doesn’t drive her to play in her free time the way it does my son.

It’s not that she’s playing “wrong,” but I worry that the sports ambivalence is my fault. For me, exercise has always been about controlling the body, managing weight and stress — checkmarks on the To-Do list. I do lots of different workouts — yoga, fitness classes, running — but the point is just to get them done. I’d really rather not.

My relationship to sports is stranger than most. As an adolescent, I stepped into all the traps that keep girls away: self-conscious, oddly shaped, and picked last. But my other problem is more unusual: I grew up with a high-level athlete in my house, and so I backed away, hands up, ceding that territory. At a young age, my preposterously athletic brother was on the path toward professional soccer. This meant growing up in a house that was clutched by his games and tournaments and travel schedule. His career, even as a teenager, had a presence in our home, and while my parents did their best to keep things equal, a family’s time is limited, and ours usually funneled his way. On top of that sting, I didn’t have the same physical prowess. Every September, I’d watch as the new gym teacher, at first excited to learn there was another Onstad in the ranks, grew quickly disappointed as I fumbled the ball, or deked around the cones with the dexterity of someone wearing snowshoes on her feet.

So I’ve always chosen forms of physical activity that don’t involve teams: I got into hiking in the outdoors; I ran; I joined a gym when I was fourteen. When exercise is in service of something else — thinness, and impossible beauty standards burned deep into the neural pathways around, say, age fourteen — then it feels like obligation. Occasional conversation by the StairMaster notwithstanding, it’s not all that social. I don’t get to go to a barbecue with my fellow classmates after hot yoga.


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Too many women have internalized the idea that every second must be filled with obligation and utility. To give up our weekends for games would mean exhaling; it might seem greedy, and not self-sacrificing enough. When my husband takes off for basketball, I have the distinct impression that he is not looking back. He simply takes the time he wants, plucks it from the branch without a thought. I know there are many women who do this, too: full applause. But if I go for a run, I am too often half present, thinking about all the things I could be doing instead during that one hour, and all the things I’ll be doing in the next one. What’s fun about that?

Exercise as play is something I wanted to understand better, and in sports, playing pickup games is probably, in the hierarchy of great things to do on the weekend, at the very top. They’re social, fun, local, free (or cost a nominal fee). One study found that kids who spend hours engaged in organized sports might become less creative adults than kids who play unstructured sports.

I Skyped a woman who grew up playing pickup basketball in Harlem to see what a life of pickup might look like. Niki grew up in Spanish Harlem in the late 1990s. Her brother, Virgil, was a year and a half older, and everywhere he went, she went, too. It was a neighborhood of parks and playgrounds, and Niki got good fast, playing both football and basketball. In pickup basketball, two captains pick ten players from the crowd of people who show up. By the time she was ten years old, Niki was getting picked first.

She would come home from school to Franklin Plaza, on 106th Street between 2nd and 3rd, and head straight to the nearby courts, playing nonstop until the lights came on, the signal that it was time to go home. (She jokes that perhaps she should have used some of that time for homework.) On weekends, basketball would go all day, until either the lights came on or her mother showed up on a bicycle calling for her kids.

Niki succeeded because she was unexpected: she’s not especially tall, and she’s pretty, upending stereotypes and sending all kinds of mixed signals that threw off her opponents. “Because of the way I looked, the guys would think, ‘Oh, she has to be the weak link.’ That was my trick. So they would leave me a bit open, thinking they could. Then when I got the ball, I would shoot and I would score every time. I had a good shot! That’s how I developed my shot to be so fast because I’d see them coming.”

 

“Too many women have internalized the idea that every second must be filled with obligation and utility.”

 

By the time she was fourteen, Niki was playing organized ball (with boys), but she still popped by the parks most weekends to play pickup. “Pickup is tougher, it’s more competitive,” she says. “There’s no rules really. With pickup, everyone does what they want, they have to earn their respect. Once you’re on the court, you’re going to be on the court with four other strangers, you don’t know who does what, what someone’s good at — then everyone will begin to reveal themselves. You can see, ‘Oh, this guy is the scorer, and he’s the aggressive one.’ But it does develop into a family. The game is something that you have in common. You can all see the same thing at one point in time, regardless of background. I can pull four complete strangers from different parts of New York City and we can all understand the same thing.”

She has made a career out of basketball, playing in college at Eastern Kentucky University, and going on to play professionally in four different countries. She’s an NYC Expert on the Nike website. When we talk, via Skype, Niki is in an apartment in the mountains in Poland, having just started as a point guard for the team PEAC-Pécs.

Sociologist Robert Stebbins calls this kind of professionalization of the amateur pursuit “devotee work,” belonging to those who are lucky — and gifted — enough to turn a hobby into a paid career. Niki’s “occupational devotion” illustrates Stebbins’s point that leisure and work aren’t always entirely sep- arate spheres. It’s possible to find such joy in a leisure activity that it becomes work, and vice versa. “Basketball gave me everything. A lot of people don’t get out of my neighborhood, but I’ve been able to do so much,” Niki says.

And it all started with the possibility of an empty court. “What separates ballers that play under the whistle, or with teams, from street ballers is they’re more controlled: ‘Let me go here and cut or do whatever the coach told me.’ It’s not as free as pickup,” she says. “I miss that.” She is often in New York in the off-season, mentoring younger players and visiting the park next to Franklin Plaza. On a Saturday morning, she still looks for that empty court, and plays.

Rest assured, this chapter is not going to end with the author engaged in a cheerful Sunday morning game of pickup basketball. I need another, say, three years of therapy to get there. But the notion of a more engaged, group experience of exercise is something I know will better my weekend; in my year of weekend-improvement, it’s top of the list. I crave community and protected time; an unassailable slot that’s for my body, and for me, religiously protected. So I joined a running club.

This club has been meeting for years in a leafy neighborhood near a large park. I’d briefly been in a group years ago, while training for a half marathon, but I’d never run with people without a goal in mind. That purposelessness feels new; this will be only for pleasure, not a finish line, which is the kind of leisure my weekends have sorely lacked.

On a Sunday morning, everyone gathers in the running store, a sea of spandex, geared to the gills. They all seem to know each other, which brings an initial rush of gym class last- picked terror. Then the owner of the store stands up and tells everyone of upcoming races while I hover near the back, trying to give off friendly-not-creepy vibes.


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One of the reasons people gather to run is what psychologists call “social facilitation”: one’s performance of a task improves when it’s done with others, or in front of an audience. But the runner has to be skilled for social facilitation to work. If not, then the audience or co-runner actually creates “social inhibition,” and speed and accuracy decrease.

I’m not so concerned with going fast, but I don’t want to be lagging behind either. The big group splits into smaller groups, and I choose one that’s distinctly middle speed, and we set off for a 14K run. At first, no one really talks to me. The guy leading the group is goofy and telling jokes that seem a little insider. I do get the patented PE feeling, but it’s okay: I’m learning to be alone in a group, which is actually a skill — even in a restaurant, we pull out phones and magazines, always defending ourselves from solitude. It’s naked to be silent in a group, but the running works its lulling magic and I follow along, inspired to go a little faster than I usually am when alone.

A few people struggle on a nasty hill, and the better runners wait at the top, cheering them on. I’m surprised how much this helps, like a hand extended. A runner announces she’s tired and wants to turn back; the leader asks who will accompany her. I realize then that even in its informal looseness, and lacking jerseys or a mascot, this particular run feels like a team sport.

Finally, a woman talks to me, asking my name. We chat about the city, the river that’s snaking along next to us. She introduces me to other runners, and I begin to move through the crowd, making small talk. There’s not a lot of eye contact, which is somehow a relief; we’re like spies, speaking out of the sides of our mouths. All of us sweating and breathing heavily, without self-consciousness.

I see things I haven’t seen before; a neighborhood I didn’t know existed; a park filled with kite-fliers. I hadn’t looked at the map in advance, wanting to fully give up control. I don’t look at my watch either. Close to the end of the 14 kilometers, the socializing stops, and people are tired, quiet. Then there is another body next to me, a woman I don’t know, and she’s struggling a bit. I move ahead, but her success is somehow my success. So I wait at the top of the final hill, and cheer her on, as if to victory.

Excerpted from The Weekend Effect by Katrina Onstad ©2017. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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