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making fitness fun for children

Hip-hop music pulsates through a brightly colored, sound-proof room. Children increase their target heart rate by bouncing around on a ball, using a jump rope, swinging around a hula hoop and doing jumping jacks. After warming up with calisthenics, the children work out different muscle groups on the primary-colored equipment, which can be adjusted to six levels.

Donna Morrissey, owner of the Express Fitness and Weight Loss Center for Women and Children in Bridgewater, MA, recently launched a 30-minute workout that blends high-energy children's games and the use of child-sized hydraulic resistance equipment. Morrissey says the class is a fun introduction to fitness for 5-year-old to 12-year-old boys and girls.

“The class increases children's self-esteem and confidence and allows for them to do exercise without pressure from peers,” she says. “They can work the circuit, jump around, get a great workout and have a fun time.”

The childhood obesity rate has tripled in the past decade, and one in every four children is now overweight. Rather than waiting for the childhood obesity epidemic to worsen, Morrissey, as well as many other health club owners nationwide, has taken steps to improve children's health and fitness. The elementary schools in her town, a suburb south of Boston with 25,000 residents, either completely eliminated or cut back their physical education classes, and to make matters worse, many children spent their free time lounging in front of the television and indulging in junk food. As the mother of a 14-year-old son, she started the program after helping teenagers at her club lose weight.

“In our little town, we don't have the money to have gym teachers, and the children aren't getting enough exercise,” she says. “I started this program to help the children in my community. While the moms work out, the kids are staying active as well, rather than sitting lethargically in the back room with a babysitter.”

Show and Tell

When Terry Panzer first moved to Vicksburg, MS, with her two sons, she experienced the same problem as Morrissey. While many of the schools offered organized sports, they cut back the physical education programs to once a week, and the city offered few activities for children. As a nurse with 20 years of experience, Panzer decided that rather than working with adults, she needed to find a way to keep the children in her community active after school. She researched several franchises and opened a 2,700-square-foot Pee Wee Workout ( facility three years ago.

Panzer combines nutrition and exercise into a 45-minute session for 3- to 6-year-olds. Children dance around the room with rhythm ribbons and colored flags for 30 minutes and then sit in a circle for a health lesson. Panzer uses puppets called the Organ Wise Guys to teach the children about the heart, stomach, gall bladder and the lungs and also covers topics such as fire prevention, water safety and bicycle safety. By giving the students coloring sheets and handouts to take home, she's also able to educate the parents as well as the children, she says.

“You can talk to the children all you want about eating a good diet, but a 5-year-old can't go home and prepare a nutritious meal,” she says. “We need to get parents involved in health education as well.”

For the school-aged children, she makes her gym area an open play zone. The children can spend an hour climbing on an indoor wall, bouncing around on a Moon Walk, punching karate bags or walking on a balance beam. She also packs up her equipment and visits the local preschools to help the children improve their coordination, balance and muscle strength during 45-minute classes. In the evenings, she caters to her adult clientele with classes combining Tai Chi, yoga and Pilates. She takes the same approach to both the adult and children's class — making fitness fun.

“I've enjoyed fitness all my life,” she says. “Everyone looks at it like a chore, but for me, it's a big stress reliever and a positive experience.”

Family Approach

Other health clubs have taken the concept of childcare to the next level by keeping the children active while their parents work out. Club Fit, which has two facilities in New York, has Energy Centers for 5- to 12-year-old children. During the three-hour sessions, the kids play kickball, soccer or basketball games in the large child-sized gym, challenge each other to a game of air hockey or burn off energy on an interactive dance machine.

“I see kids lose weight on it,” Dan Mooney, the sports director for the club in Jefferson Valley, NY, says about the dance machine. “They can compete on a friendly basis and have fun. By the time they're done, they're out of breath.”

Club Fit also offers year-round sports camps for 3- to 12-year-old children. The Just for Threes program introduces toddlers to the basic rules and techniques of different sports. The Junior Kinder Sports program is based on the same principle but is geared toward older children. The health club also offers weekly camps that tailor the activities toward the specific age groups. Each activity is designed to not only help keep the children physically fit but also to be fun for the participants.

“Back in the old days, we'd have to do wind sprints and chin-ups in gym class, which was horrible,” Mooney says. “We're trying to teach them that it can be fun to stay active. By teaching them about fitness at a young age, we hope to set a foundation for the future.”

Training Future Members

Health clubs are also educating their younger members about how to use the cardio and strength-training equipment at their facilities. The 200,000-square-foot Sports Club at the Four Seasons Resort in Las Colinas, TX, offers a junior certification program. According to the club's rules and regulations, children under the age of 14 are required to be accompanied by an adult. However, by graduating from the program, children gain access to certain areas of the facility that they can use on their own. The certified fitness professionals expect the candidates to have a knowledge of the equipment, safety precautions and etiquette and always follow the guidelines.

“We discourage kids from picking up free weights,” says Robin Scott, director of sports for the Sports Club. “I think it's important for children to be supervised at a young age in a weight-lifting facility.”

Lori Lowell, owner of two Golds Gyms in Lorton, VA, and Woodbridge, VA, launched a program to help college freshmen battle the “freshman 15” and get focused on fitness before they graduate from high school. Any high school senior with a 3.0 GPA can become a member of the club for six months for free. To be eligible for the program, they must work out in the club three times a week for 45 minutes and take 30 group fitness classes within six months, write an essay about the benefits of exercise, and interview in front of a selected board. One student each year wins a $2,000 scholarship to the college of his or her choice for participating in the program.

With about nine million children over the age of 6 years old considered obese, the time has come for fitness professionals to take action, Lowell says.

“Smaller clubs, chains and independent owners need to reach out and make these children's programs available,” she says. “We need to teach them that they don't have to be 18 years old to work out.”

10 Tips for Children's Programming

  1. Invite the children to drop by for a free visit.
  2. Limit the children's exercise sessions to 45 minutes.
  3. Incorporate high-energy music into the children's classes.
  4. Give children a goal to work toward such as a T-shirt or another prize.
  5. Create a non-competitive, caring environment so all of the participants feel comfortable exercising regardless of their body type or skill level.
  6. Determine your members' needs and establish a clear line of communication with the parents.
  7. Hire a fun and energetic staff that loves working with children.
  8. Plan creative activities to keep the children's attention and prevent boredom.
  9. Focus on safety by closely supervising children during an exercise program.
  10. Strive for a balance between your family programming and the adult environment.

Play Time

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