Targeting Fitness Programs to Children


One of your members earnestly reveals the plight of her inactive and overweight 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. She fears that if she doesn't do something soon, her kids will be doomed to a lifetime of obesity. She then asks why you don't offer fitness programs for children.

At first you want to tell her that she and her husband, who is also a member, are setting bad examples by both being overweight and only occasionally dropping by the club. Both parents have revealed that their busy schedules prevent them from better usage.

But she isn't the only one who has complained. Other parents have told you about how schools are slashing physical education classes due to budget cuts. Apparently, the local school board has deemed that there are more important things for a school to spend money on — and a child to spend time on — than good health.

So the question comes back to you. Because of the high demand for children's programming, why don't most clubs offer it? It is easy to assume that the demand would be enormous with childhood obesity at an all-time high.

While club owners should make every feasible effort to counteract the seemingly insurmountable problem of childhood obesity, it's important to know the difference between need and demand. To answer your member's question, you tell her that you've offered different programs, but the attendance quickly faded to almost nothing. You also mention that several equipment companies have created lines of children's equipment, but none have taken off. You even reference the bankruptcy of Discovery Zone, a national chain filled with playscapes and different apparatuses designed to get children active. Even McDonald's tried a similar concept but gave up after a couple of locations. Other companies have come and gone trying to license children's programs for clubs. They took a lot of space, and cash flow (demand) did not warrant the expense of such space and payroll.

The potential for children's fitness is enormous, yet solving the problem for a club is equally problematic. Studies have shown that children will not follow a structured equipment routine. The parents may be able to get them to a few classes, but after a certain period of time, the children will want to stop going. Why?

First and foremost, children are being reprogrammed at younger and younger ages to be inactive. Newton's law of physics states that a body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest tends to stay at rest. The same principle applies to the human body. If humans don't move around and exercise on a consistent basis, working out can be an uncomfortable — even painful — experience. Due to technology, we use our bodies less than at any other time in history. Initially, this was just a problem for adults, but with the rising popularity of sedentary activities such as surfing the Web, watching TV or playing video games, children have become so inactive that even movement for them becomes uncomfortable. Just like adults, children are now so out of shape that most activity is met with complaints and excuses. Until they are about five years old, children are usually bundles of energy, but when they reach school age, more of their time is filled with inactive experiences. Plus, they see exercise as uncomfortable, boring and embarrassing (yes, some children stay active by playing sports, but unfortunately, these children are in the minority). So trying to get a child to follow a fitness routine may be met with complete opposition.

However, hope seems to be just around the corner. Now it appears that newer interactive games — combining video games and technology with movement — will have a positive effect on the health of children. The good news is that these games don't take much space in a health club. Now a child can play tennis on a TV screen by moving to hit the ball. Other games are coming out that have similar movements associated with “playing” the game or “dancing” a movement. This tricks the children into increasing their heart rate and getting some exercise. Ultimately, some movement may lead to more and more movement.

If filling your health club with children's fitness programs has a poor track record, consider a different approach. By investing in interactive games that get kids moving, you can help prepare these children for a lifetime of health club membership.

Bruce Carter is the president of Optimal Fitness Design Systems International, a club design firm that has created about $420 million worth of clubs in 45 states and 26 countries.

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