Thursday, July 24, 2008

NEWPORT, N.H. (AP) | 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 children.

“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 (visualize 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.

Building on the success of grown-up dodgeball and kickball leagues, classes such as 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, said 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 players.

“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.”

Ethel Frese, an associate professor of physical therapy at Saint Louis University and a 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 shows that people with lots of friends and strong social networks live longer. “I do think there is a huge social benefit of exercise.”

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