NEWPORT, N.H. — When “spastic ball” starts, it’s better to duck first and ask questions later.
This is Old School P.E., a two-hour exercise program strictly for adults, built around grown-up versions of gym class staples. Participants say getting in shape is a bonus to the main attraction — a Friday night out with friends, away from the kids.
“From the very beginning, we decided on a very small set of rules because we didn’t want it to get that ’league’ kind of feel,” said co-founder Mike Pettinicchio. “You want to go out, have some fun, be a little competitive, but we all have lives. There are not going to be any scouts in the stands.”
In fact, there aren’t any stands or bleachers in the Newport Recreation Center, just a narrow bench inches from the action. So when a game of floor hockey or spastic ball (think soccer mixed with basketball) gets going, spectators must stand ready to jump out of the way of a flying stick or ball.
The rules are simple: Spouses or significant others must play on opposing teams. Keeping score is prohibited. The commissioner — a new one is chosen each night — decides which games are played and can alter them as he or she sees fit. Want to play floor hockey with a dodgeball? Go for it. Two balls? The more the merrier.
Inspired by popular kickball leagues
Following on the success of grown-up dodgeball and kickball leagues, classes like Newport’s Old School P.E. or Urban Recess in Portland, Ore., are a way to enjoy childhood activities without all the rules.
Newport Recreation director P.J. Lovely, who has been asked to speak about the program at a state conference for recreation officials, says he often has to turn people away when a new eight-week session starts because the gym is too small to accommodate more than about two dozen.
“We’re almost a victim of our own success right now,” he said.
During the most recent gathering, participants started with quick warm up session (four sit-ups, three push-ups, two jumping jacks) followed by three games: floor hockey, spastic ball and Ultimate Frisbee. They moved outside for the last activity, stretching out across the picturesque town common for a men vs. women competition.
“It’s a way to keep a little bit active, because that’s always hard to fit into our schedules as full-time parents and full-time workers,” said Deb Gardner of Croydon. But she also appreciates the chance to meet new people in a welcoming environment.
“It’s not really competitive,” she said. “The guys will act kind of serious, but we really just joke and have a good time all night and pick on each other and laugh.”
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Ethel Frese, a professor of physical therapy at Saint Louis University and board certified cardiovascular and pulmonary specialist, said Old School P.E. fits into a trend toward fitness programs that move beyond the traditional bike or treadmill by emphasizing entertainment.
“The nice thing about doing a group activity is that you get the social interaction, which is also part of general health,” she said, noting research that shows people with lots of friends and strong social networks living longer. “I do think there is a huge social benefit of exercise.”
Duck, duck, goose!
While certain activities might be better for strengthening or cardiovascular health, any activity that gets people moving is good, Frese said. And the variety offered by different games keeps the workout from getting stale, she said.
Karin Schmidt has seen that first hand in the Urban Recess fitness classes she runs in Portland. Activities like relay races, tag or even duck-duck-goose all are forms of efficient interval training that allow participants to stay within a target heart rate throughout their entire workout, she said.
“You get sort of distracted from the fact that you’re actually working out,” she said. “And I’ve seen some women get pretty ripped in six weeks.”
Her program was coed when she started it in 2002, but she quickly restricted it to women-only because the guys “couldn’t contain themselves.”
“Girls were getting their eyes poked out or boobs grabbed because the guys were so competitive about it,” she said.
She came up with the idea while talking to a fellow personal trainer about why some clients had trouble sticking to an exercise program: “We said, ’Well, you didn’t have to twist a kid’s arm to play at recess, why can’t we do that as adults?”’
At Old School P.E., there are some concessions made for age, says Pettinicchio, who vetoed one commissioner’s plan to play Red Rover because “we felt pulling shoulders out of bodies at 35 or 40 years of age is not a good thing.”
He also offers a warning to newcomers.
“One of the things we try to stress is, it’s probably been 15 to 20 years since you stepped on a gym floor,” he said. “Saturday is probably going to be OK, but Sunday may be very difficult. Some people can’t get out of bed until Monday.”
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