Your Health

Games people play

Winnipeggers find many ways to put fun into their physical activity

Wheelchair rugby players from left: Dan Fletcher, Jared Funk and Arin Smith.
Wheelchair rugby players from left: Dan Fletcher, Jared Funk and Arin Smith. Photo: Marianne Helm

BY SUSIE STRACHAN
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2015

It's a given: we all know we need to be more active to maintain our health and well-being.

But not everyone enjoys the thought of exercise. Working out is often seen as hard, sweaty, boring and, above all else, solitary.

That's why many people turn to games to stay physically active. There are a lot of people out there who are simply not inclined to climb on a treadmill and run for 15 or 20 minutes. But get them playing a game that requires some running around with other people and they'll go for hours.

Simply put, for some people, exercise feels like work, games are fun.

And once people do try a new game, they often gain much more than an opportunity to be physically active, says Deanna Betteridge, Physical Activity Promotions Manager, with the Winnipeg Health Region.

One of the biggest attractions for learning a new game is the community that comes along with it, she says. "Research suggests the reason many stick with a new game or sport is for the positive social interactions that go with being part of a team."

Of course, there is no end of active games to be played. Old standbys that get people up and moving include games like hockey, soccer, badminton or basketball.

But there are also some relatively new games that are catching on with people. Take pickleball, for example. A cross between badminton and tennis, pickleball has become especially popular with older Winnipeggers over the past couple of years.

Meanwhile, ultimate Frisbee, usually associated with sunny summer days, has caught on with the younger crowd to the point where it now has indoor winter leagues that attract thousands of players.

Even live action role playing - which is essentially a live version of a computer game - has players getting "health by stealth" as they play medieval-fantasy mock battle games such as capture the flag in an outdoor setting.

Betteridge says these types of active games don't require previous sport or exercise experience, which may appeal to those who aren't interested in the old standbys. This means that more people are able to enjoy physical activities and develop movement skills that contribute to life-long participation. 

"No matter your size, your age, your physical or mental ability, it's all about finding a game you enjoy," she says. "There are lots of games you can try, and the physical, mental, and social health benefits are great."

With that in mind, we have compiled a list of some less conventional games that appear to be attracting a fair number of Winnipeggers who like to have fun while being physically active.

Pickleball

As Anette Dumais prepares to make her first serve of the morning, Louis Allec reminds her to keep the ball down by her knee and hit it underhand.

With a flick of the wrist, she launches the green whiffle ball over the net. It bounces once, and is returned by Tannis Calhoun. Allec hits it back, landing the ball just out of bounds.

Calhoun then serves the ball and it's returned by Allec. Her partner, Chris Bothe, switches his paddle from his right to his left hand, and makes a tricky shot.

Welcome to pickleball, a cross between tennis and badminton that is rapidly growing in popularity with people of all ages, but especially among seniors.

"Pickleball has really boomed," says Brenda Vincent, a co-ordinator for a seniors league that plays every morning from Monday to Friday at a number of community centres in the Windsor Park, Niakwa and St. Vital neighbourhoods.

"When I started playing three years ago, there were 47 people," says Vincent during a break from the action at the Winakwa Community Centre one morning. Today the league has 300 members.

Played on a badminton court, pickleball is a low-impact activity that appeals to people who don't want the stress on their joints that comes from other racquet sports such as tennis or racquetball, says Vincent.

"It's much easier on the joints. The paddle is light and so is the ball. You don't need the arm strength that you would for tennis, nor the legs," says Vincent.

Norm Rey knows all about leg strength. He's had seven surgeries to rebuild his leg after an accidental gunshot wound 15 years ago. He also had a heart attack last December. The minute he finished doing his therapy at the Reh-Fit Centre, he was after his doctor to clear him to return to play pickleball. "I use as a lot of my muscles here. It's a great cardio workout," says Rey.

Pickleball Manitoba is the provincial organization for the sport. It helps to secure facilities and courts to encourage more people to take up the sport. And it also runs beginners' clinics to teach the rules of the game.

"We're here three or four mornings a week, playing for close to three hours each," says Vincent. "You don't need a partner, the way you do in tennis, so you can jump right in. The group is friendly and we have a great time together."

The health benefits of playing that often a week add up quickly, she says. "There are people playing with hip and knee replacements. Their doctors are always complimenting them on their fitness," she says. "For me, I had minor trouble with blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Since I started playing pickleball, those have been perfect for the past three years."

For more information about pickleball, contact Pickleball Manitoba at www.pickleballmanitoba.ca.

Wheelchair rugby

Arin Smith rolls down the court in his wheelchair at full speed, trying to avoid the players on the opposing team.

Suddenly, a player swoops in to block his forward motion. Smith throws the ball to a teammate in the clear, who rolls on to score the first goal of the game.

But Smith and his teammates don't take a moment to celebrate. The ball is turned over to the opposing team, so they quickly switch to defence mode, blocking their opponents and trying to keep them from scoring. The action is fast-paced, full-contact and loud.

Smith is a member of the Winnipeg 76ers, the provincial wheelchair rugby team, which practises at the Duckworth Centre at the University of Winnipeg.

"This is a fantastic game, the only full-contact wheelchair sport meant for quadriplegics," says Smith, who started playing the game in 1990. "It's a great cardio and upper body workout, and it really keeps me in shape," he says. "But it's not only about the sport and the fitness. It's a chance for me to pass on my experiences and life skills to new players, about how to live with disability."

Smith says what is now an international sport was first invented  in 1976 by a group of Winnipeg quadriplegic athletes, including Jerry Terwin, Duncan Campbell, Randy Dueck, Paul LeJeune and Chris Sargent. It's currently played in 26 countries and is in development in 18 more. There are 15 provincial teams in Canada, along with plenty of recreational teams.

"They (the athletes who invented the game) wanted a sport that allowed people with reduced arm and hand function to be able to play together, compared to wheelchair basketball, where we can be left behind by those with better arm function," says Smith.

The sport is co-ed, and features elements of basketball, handball, hockey, and, of course, rugby. The object of the game is to carry the ball across the opposing team's goal line. Two wheels must cross the goal line for a goal to count, and the player must have firm control of the ball when they cross the line.

While Smith plays at a high level, the game is also open for those who just want to have some fun.

Michelle Reles, a relative newcomer to the game, says she was attracted to the fast-paced action. "The game has a 'shot clock' function," she says between exercises and drills intended to teach the players to move the ball or block their opponents. "Once your team has the ball, you have 12 seconds to get it from your back court over the centre line, and a total of 40 seconds to score a goal. If you don't, the ball is turned over to the other side."

Players use custom-made sports wheelchairs, which have a front bumper to help them strike and hold opposing wheelchairs, and wings in front of the main wheels, to make the chair more difficult to block. There is an anti-tip device in the back, and the canted wheels have a rubber dip rim to make it easier to grip.

Brad Hebert was injured 17 years ago, and started playing rugby just over two years ago in his late 40s. He credits his physiotherapist with pointing him in the right direction. "I hadn't used a manual wheelchair in all that time. But I was losing muscle, and watching friends go downhill. I decided I needed to do something about it," he says.

The majority of wheelchair rugby players have spinal cord injuries that have resulted in full or partial paralysis of the legs and partial paralysis of the arms, says Smith.

Players are classified according to their functional level and assigned a point value ranging from 0.5 - the lowest functional level - to 3.5 at the highest. The total classification value of all players on the court for a team at any one time cannot exceed eight points. "Unless there's a woman on the team," says Reles with a grin. "Then it can go up to 8.5."

One of the interesting aspects of the game is the opportunity for international competition at a high level. Jared Funk, another veteran member of the 76ers, has flown the world over to take part in the Paralympic Games as part of Team Canada, winning silver in Athens in 2004, bronze in Beijing in 2008 and silver in London in 2012.

To learn more about wheelchair rugby, contact the Manitoba Wheelchair Sports Association at www.mwsa.ca.

Dodgeball

Six balls are lined up at the centre of the court. Six players stare each other down, ready to leap into action as the starting whistle blows.

With the call of "play dodgeball," a player from each team rushes forward. Crouching to present less of a target, they toss their three balls back to their teammates, who pick them up. And the game is on.

Players then slam the balls across the court. The speed of the throws and the sound of the balls striking the walls is impressive, but the hits aren't that hard, according to Dodgeball Winnipeg league founder and co-ordinator Stacy Huen.

"We use seven-inch foam balls with a soft rubber coating," he says, as players contort their bodies to avoid being tagged, leaping over incoming balls in a recent tournament that featured a dozen local teams along with a team in from Edmonton.

"You don't have to be fit when you start playing, but you do have to have a certain amount of agility. You want to avoid being hit by the balls, so you do learn to dodge quickly."

Once a staple of schoolyards everywhere, the popularity of dodgeball for adults is growing, says Huen. "It's intense. It's a full-body workout. And it's an amazing amount of fun," he says.

 Dodgeball Winnipeg co-ordinates both a draft league and regular games. He says the game attracts men and women in their 20s and 30s, most of whom were brought in by someone who already plays the game. For the uninitiated, the game is played by two teams that stand at opposite sides of a room and throw balls at opposing players. If a person is hit, they're out of the game. However, if a ball bounces first or hits a wall before hitting a player, it doesn't count. Nor does it count if the player catches the ball. Each team is co-ed, with a minimum of two women on each, and the draft ensures the teams are balanced.

"It takes a decent amount of strategy to play well," says Huen. "You'll see one person assigned to retrieving and tossing the balls to those who throw well. People learn to do trick throws and Frisbee-style tosses. Many players learn to throw with both arms, because play does tire your arms out."

To counter that, many players do weight training, with a focus on their arms and shoulders. "You want to be able to tell the difference between being sore, and having an injury," says Huen, adding that players also do cross-fit, sprinting drills, and other exercises to build muscle and cardio capacity, along with remaining agile.

League play kicks off in January 2016. Teams play according to their ability, with the more competitive teams seeded against each other. Games are 50 minutes long. Each game is divided into sub-games, which end when all players on one team have been hit. Games are played at community clubs such as Winakwa, Norberry-Glenlee, and Huen's favourite, the new Elmwood Community Club.

For more information, contact Dodgeball Winnipeg at www.dodgeballwinnipeg.com.

Masters swimming

When most people think of swimming, it's the lessons they put their kids in, or a good time they have at the beach. It's recreational.

But there's a competitive side to swimming. The Olympic Games are a prime example of this. Swimming competitions have been a part of the Olympics since 1896, when men's 100- and 1,500-metre freestyle events were held in open water. Women joined the games in 1912. In Canada, swimming was added to the Canada Games roster in 1969.

That's all very well and good, if you're a young athlete. But there are plenty of recreational swimmers who still love the thrill of competition.

Susan Selby is one of those. She is also president of the Manitoba Masters Aquatic Club (MMAC). The club helps stage competition for swimmers 18 years of age and older who qualify as masters and want to test their speed and technique against others.

"The competitions usually run as an afternoon event, taking four hours or so with a 45-minute warmup swim beforehand," says Selby. "The events are divided into male and female classes, with five-year age increments. The events are run with both men and women and any age group in a heat."

There are nine masters swim clubs in the province, located in Winnipeg, Selkirk, Brandon, Thompson and several provincial teams.

Most of the clubs hold competitive swim meets. MMAC will host a meet in the new year called March Madness, says Selby.

"The World Masters were in Montreal last year and a small group from our club attended and competed," she says, adding many people also compete in the 55-plus Manitoba Games, which sees swimmers up to 80 years of age and older competing.

There are a number of different categories at masters swim competitions. Swimmers are grouped by style of stroke, and also by age. Selby, for example, competes in the 400-metre class for four different swimming strokes and, in fact, holds the Manitoba record for her age group.

Masters-level practices aren't adult learn-to-swim lessons, cautions Selby. Instead, it builds on the skills people already have in the water, improving their fitness, strength and flexibility. "It's a really good workout," she says.

For more information, contact the Manitoba Masters Aquatic Club at www.mmac.mb.ca/default.html or Masters Swimming Canada at www.mymsc.ca/index.jsp.

Ultimate

Chad McFarland woke up one day, a couple of years ago, and took stock of his situation.

"I turned 34 and realized I was losing muscle and gaining weight," says McFarland.

He started to look around for a game that would help him become more active. It didn't take him long to settle on ultimate, a non-contact sport played with a disc.

"I was attracted to ultimate because it's fun, I meet new people, and it's a high-intensity workout," he says.

Long considered a summertime activity, ultimate has grown over the years to become a full-blown, year-round sport played by thousands of players in the province.

McFarland, for example, started playing in a beginner league this past summer, but is now playing in an indoor winter league organized by the Manitoba Organization of Disc Sports (MODS).

McFarland says the game provides him with an incredible cardio workout. "It's a high-impact sport in that you're running, jumping, and even diving for a disc. Your heart and lungs are going full-out. Your arms and shoulders get a workout when you're throwing and catching," he says. "I felt like a wet noodle after my first game."

Ultimate got its start in Winnipeg at St. Paul's High School in the mid-1980s, when a three-team league was formed at Assiniboine Park, says Corey Draper, Director of League Operations for MODS, which was founded in 1988. Competitive disc sports were first introduced to Canada in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Today, MODS has both adult and kids' leagues, with close to 5,000 players, making them the second largest ultimate league in Canada. Games are played outdoors in the warmer months - rain or shine, unless there's a thunderstorm in the offing - and indoors in the winter.

There are over 240 Winnipeg adult teams registered with MODS, the majority of which are co-ed. There are all-female and all-male leagues, a four-on-four player league and also over 50 middle and high school and university teams playing in the city. This past summer, MODS started their first-ever 9- to 11-year-old program.

"There's a level for everyone who likes to play ultimate. We have people who play at the park, who play in the rec leagues, and people who travel to international competitions," says Draper.

For most games, there are seven players to a team. Points are scored by passing the disc to a teammate in the opposing end zone. The first team is on defence and "pulls" (throws) the disc to the other team, who are on offence, and the game is on. The person throwing the disc has 10 seconds to make the throw (or seven seconds, when playing indoors), which can be done in any direction.

For more information, contact the Manitoba Organization of Disc Sports atmods.usetopscore.com.

Kanga ball

You can almost feel the tension in the air inside the Amber Trails Community School gym as Kalynne Mendez steps up to the wicket, bat in hand.

Bowler Shaan Ubhi takes a moment to size up his diminutive opponent, and then fires a pitch towards her. Mendez swings and connects, sending the ball to the other end of the gym.

"Good one," shouts coach Allan Sharman. "Run!"

Mendez dashes around a pair of wickets, not once, but twice. Meanwhile, the kids playing on the other team have retrieved the ball and returned it to Ubhi, who takes advantage of Mendez's third attempt to run around the wickets. Ubhi bowls the ball and knocks over the home-base wicket.

"Kalynne you're out," says Sharman. He nods to the next batter in line. "Quick, Tarnpreet, pick up the bat and get in here before Shaan bowls again."

Welcome to the world of kanga ball. Invented in Australia, kanga ball is essentially a simpler form of cricket especially tailored for children. Unlike real cricket, which can take up to eight hours for a regulation game, kanga ball can be played in less than 30 minutes.

Tarnpreet Vidia, who is in Grade 7 at Amber Trails, says he was introduced to the game by his older brother. "I've been playing kanga ball for five years," he says, adding it's his first year playing at his school. "I've watched real cricket games online. But I like to play kanga ball more. It doesn't have all the rules. And you get to run a lot."

The Manitoba Cricket Association, which runs summer kanga ball camps for kids, and offers the game at a number of Winnipeg schools, is working with the City of Winnipeg's Sports Programs in Inner City Neighbourhoods (SPIN) to offer children games that are free, local and teach basic athletic skills and teamwork.

The kanga ball sessions at Amber Trails are always well-attended, says Ron Dipchand, Executive Director of the Manitoba Cricket Association. "It's popular with new immigrants," he says. "It reminds them of the games they played at home. They want their children to learn cricket."

All it takes to play are a plastic bat and ball, and a trio of plastic wickets. "It can be played indoors or outdoors, on grass, on a gym floor, or even at the beach. The idea is to make it simple, so players build up their skills, and possibly want to move on to playing regulation cricket itself," says Dipchand.

Mendez, Vidia, Ubhi and the other kids in the gym don't give much thought to playing cricket when they grow up. But they certainly enjoy kanga ball.

"I think this is great. I get to run and bat and have fun with my friends," says Mendez, before she leaps up and runs to get into line to bat again.

To learn more about kanga ball, contact the Manitoba Cricket Association at www.cricket.mb.ca.

To learn more about SPIN, contact the City of Winnipeg at winnipeg.ca/cms/recreation/programs/spin.stm.

Live action role playing

Lady Ursa Burdenkeeper and her brave band of archers and scouts are on a mission: to find and defeat a giant spider lurking in the woods.

But first, they have to match wits with puzzles posed by ghosts, battle with zombies and, above all, survive the crawl through the world they've found themselves in.

When they finally emerge from the woods, only one person has escaped unscathed. In fact, most of the team had to be brought back from the dead more than once.

If you're confused about how such a scenario could take place in Winnipeg, it helps to know that Lady Ursa - or Danielle Mitchell, to use her everyday name - is taking part in a live action role playing game hosted by the Barony of Wildgard at Assiniboine Park.

Live action role playing, for those not in the know, allows people to act out a fantasy game in a real-world setting, interacting with each other as characters. Think of it as Dungeons and Dragons played outdoors, rather than on a computer or a table top.

Mitchell is one of the longest-running members of Wildgard, and has served as the Monarch of the group for two terms.

"I've been playing with Wildgard for four years. I love it because it gives me something to commit to, and lets me show my loyalty and courage," says Mitchell, adding, for the record, that there were no giant spiders or zombies, except in the imaginations of the people playing the game. "LARPing fills a need in me, and gives me a place where I know I belong."

Mitchell has Type 2 diabetes, which she helps control with diet and exercise. Wildgard events are her favourite way to exercise. She also touts the social aspect of Wildgard, as the group is very accepting of people.

"Straight, gay, lesbian, people of different political views, different religious views, able-bodied, physically challenged; we all come together and have a great time," she says. "You get to take on a whole new persona here, and that's incredibly freeing for anyone who might have social anxiety."

Players meet on Sunday afternoons on the eastern edge of Assiniboine Park, to engage each other in safe and fun medieval-fantasy games and mock combat. The group - which numbers around 60, mostly in their 20s and 30s - meets outside, year-round. Membership is free to encourage people to participate.

John Manning, who plays as Thistle, says the group has built-in safety rules for their mock combat games. 

"We use 'boffer' swords, which are made of stiff foam, covered in cloth. The end of the sword must be greater than two-and-a-half inches in width, to ensure it can't damage anyone's eye," says Manning, adding the safety rules also don't allow any strikes above the shoulders, and that each game has referees (known as reeves) to ensure the action is harmless. "Injuries are quite rare due to the stringent attention paid to safety. Anyone who doesn't pull their blows (strike softly) is asked to leave."

The group attracts cosplayers, medieval weapons buffs, video gamers, prop makers and even former military types, says Manning. Children under 14 can participate, but only if their parent or guardian stays with them at the park. "Kids have a great time when they come out. They burn off energy, and everyone knows to treat them gently."

Wildgard, which is part of an international organization called Amtgard, pulls in people from all over Winnipeg and surrounding areas.

For more information about live action role playing, contact Wildgard at www.facebook.com/groups/Wildgard/?fref=ts, or Amtgard at www.amtgard.com

Susie Strachan is a communications advisor with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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