Think Play is Just for Kids? Think again.

What started as a national study on health turned into an excuse for adults to keep playing like kids

If you were at risk for heart disease in the 1950s, you were told to rest. Take it easy. Don’t strain yourself.

Then Dr. Bruno Balke who liked to test the limits of the human body, came along.

When Balke arrived at the University of Wisconsin in 1964, he questioned traditional medical advice. What if instead of resting, heart patients exercised?

By the mid-1960s, the National Institutes of Health was willing to pursue that idea, and Balke became the project director for a groundbreaking national study that has since spun off two UW institutions: the Bruno Balke Biodynamics Lab and the Preventive Cardiology program. If you’ve ever run on a treadmill for a doctor-prescribed stress test, you have Balke and his collaborator Francis Nagle, EdD to thank.

To complete his pioneering research, Balke invited all UW academic and administrative staff between the ages of forty-five and sixty-one to receive a free health and fitness evaluation. About 560 professors signed up and eventually one hundred men qualified and participated in the study. The subjects were divided into three groups: Group A engaged in walking and running activities, Group B participated in a variety of games and Group C was a control group that did no exercise.

Twice a year, all groups received cardio, blood pressure and cholesterol testing. Jim Sparks, or “Sparky,” is the oldest and longest-term member of the group. He played with Group B informally for a while and joined formally in about 1968.

Sparky remembers that some of the regular tests took place at Picnic Point, where female grad students wearing shorts, tank tops and two-way radios (in case something went wrong) would lead the subjects on a run. “There was a saying among us that jogging behind these young people was a reason to stay alive,” he jokes.

Around the time Whole Foods moved to Madison in the mid-’90s, the study was complete. Balke and Nagle’s research showed that there wasn’t that much difference in the improvement in the three groups; just being active on a routine basis seemed to be the most important result.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Group B played on. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they played. They played soccer in the summer. They played basketball in the winter. They played volleyball (poorly) and ultimate Frisbee (briefly). They played whenever the Natatorium was open. They have been playing since 1966.

L to R: Don Woolston, Brian Joiner, Rebecca Ryan, David Vail, Rick Grover and Chess AdamsThree years ago, Brian Joiner invited me to play with this group that’s been together for forty-seven years. They play only basketball now. Behind Sparky, Joiner is the group’s elder statesman and their chief recruiter. Together with Rick Grover, these are the three amigos who’ve been with the group the longest.

Today, our participants range in age from the forties to the seventies. They come from the vet school, the engineering school, the U.S. Geological Survey and elsewhere. Some are retired. Some are working. Some are working on retiring. We have more than the average number of bird nerds and Badger fans.

These men have battled back from knee surgeries, frozen shoulders, broken noses, torn corneas and even strokes. They drive each other crazy. They drive each other to play better. They keep track of the score, endlessly.

We play full court whenever six or more of us show up, and half-court when schedules or the weather leave us with fewer. We are fierce competitors and intense trash talkers. No good play will be unnoticed … or left uncriticized.

Of course, my heart is healthier because I play with them. But that’s the least of it. My heart is also bigger, because it has made room for something that is timeless and ageless: the joy of play.

Rebecca Ryan attempts to play basketball every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 a.m. at the Nat. Group B is always looking for new players. Email rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com to learn more and get signed up.

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