Pacific Northwest | August 3, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineAugust 3, home
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Sweat It, Or Don't
A walk in the park proves exercise can still be fun
At local parks such as Green Lake, it's easy to get in step — or line or the swing — with folks who are exercising for the fun of it.
HOW DID EXERCISE become a penance? Why does it often seem like another job or another achievement mountain to climb? Must it always be measured in miles, heart rates and calories? Why can't we factor in enjoyment? Why can't it be funner? Do we have to call it a "workout"?

To shake this blue navel-gazing, I stroll Green Lake on a weekend afternoon. That's when it and other large urban parks come alive with a kinetic essence I call communal individuality. People of all kinds exercise their way, in their game, on their team, at their pace.

My 8-year-old daughter, Nikki, wanted to go to a movie, but I persuaded her to help me count the ways people exercise at Green Lake. In no time, we spotted people throwing, running, chasing, kicking, swinging, paddling, casting, shooting baskets, flinging Frisbees and heaving footballs.

The three-mile path around the lake seems, as it does on every sunny day, like Third World rush hour with walkers, and joggers and people on wheels veering in an out of lanes at all speeds. It's an urban way to commune with nature, I suppose.

For teamwork, we head to the fields. At the park's lumpiest soccer field, near tennis courts and a few golf holes, we see a young guy chugging toward the opponent's goal. The ball dribbles in front of his toes and his eyes get big, seeing potential glory. Then the herd of defenders descends upon him. He goes down with a solid splat.

Whistle, foul, free kick, says the ref. But it's not enough for the aggrieved. "That's the third time!" he yells at the ref, who ignores him. Nikki looks frightened, but I've seen it many times, many places. Welcome to rec-league soccer.

His penalty kick sails high and wide left. In no time, everyone charges the other way and the foul tiff vaporizes.
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Eyes on the ball

When I was a kid, I shot baskets in my back yard well after the sun went down, so often that I began to feel I could score blindfolded.

I recently tried one of Huffy Sports' glow-in-the-dark basketballs (only 30 years late), so taking it down to the Green Lake outdoor courts at dusk to let guys playing pickup games try it out.

The ball's feel and bounce drew mixed reviews, but the game raged on, and that seems the point.

Now if they'd make glow-in-the-dark rims ...

DONK! The sound of a well-struck softball calls us to one of the nearby diamonds. Three of the four are hosting games between guys, between women, and between both. Everyone seems to take it seriously, but one umpire keeps it in perspective by joking with a pitcher between lobs. The stands are nearly full. A pizza guy delivers. A woman heckles. A kid bangs on bleachers with a plastic bat, like Bam-Bam.

A hulking batter slams a pitch into left field where it is caught by a fielder who moves awkwardly and sticks her glove out in a straight-arm. As shaky as the fielder looks, it's an out, proving once again it is about hitting where they ain't. While not the highest level of play you'll see, everyone is in uniform, in position and having fun.

Growing up in Eugene, I never missed a University of Oregon track meet and can still picture Peter Shmock winning shot put events. He competed in two Olympics and was strength and conditioning coach for the Mariners and a trainer for Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now he owns a downtown fitness club, ZUM.

I always thought people with that sort of résumé had rigid ideas about exercise, but he embraces doing what you can and pushes experiences like the ones you get at Green Lake.

"As people learn how to make fitness more enjoyable and easier by not pushing themselves so hard in their exercise regime," he says, "they can begin to learn to make the rest of their lives work better by not pushing so hard and making the whole of life a negative experience."

Nikki and I find another soccer game, this one between preteen girls. She is a good gymnast and a fast runner but is intimidated by ball sports, so I wanted her to see girl power. As luck would have it, we arrive just in time to see two girls smack heads and fall into a heap. The chatter drains from the sideline. The girls stay on the ground. Their eyes bulge and they don't say anything. I've seen those looks before. They are deciding whether or not they are hurt.

We pass a playground swarming with kids, a flag football game is in full rage, a game of ultimate Frisbee and young men shooting, scoring and fouling one another on the outdoor basketball court. We merge back on the lake path and then up a steep hill to the top of Phinney Ridge.

By the time we get home we realize there was a workout we failed to count.

Our own.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.

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