According to Arrin Fleck, a Scottsdale Healthcare exercise physiologist, a child’s natural instinct is to be in constant motion. (Have you ever tried making a 7-year-old sit still?)
But with computers, video games, television and the rest of modern life, kids — especially those not involved in organized sports — don’t always get as much exercise as they could, or should. Her advice?
1. Be a good role model by being active and health-conscious yourself. Establish a dialogue with your kids about the lifelong benefits of being active and make fitness a family affair.
2. Make exercise fun. "Parents often think sports are the only way to get their kids active," she said. "But there are so many other ways. Go for a walk in the evening. Wash the car." Other activities can include biking, in-line skating and tossing a ball.
3. Be supportive and encouraging. Instead of dwelling on what kids need to
change, emphasize what they’re doing right with positive reinforcement.
An aerobics class is meeting in a mirrored studio with hardwood floors in a fitness center in Gilbert. The goal is to get moving and keep moving, and the constant whirl of motion, even before class has begun, lets you know: These exercisers live to move. They’re not sporting expensive sweat-wicking ensembles by Nike or Adidas. They’re dressed in mismatched shorts, ratty sneakers, SpongeBob SquarePants Tshirts. As the instructor starts the upbeat music, one student pokes at another.
"Guess what," she says. "Today I saw a caterpillar, and it got squished and now it’s dead."
Welcome to the world of kids’ fitness, a mix of exercise, education, pint-sized equipment and play that’s blossoming in gyms and health clubs across the nation and the East Valley. With close to 9 million American kids overweight or obese, according to a study recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fitness industry is targeting a younger generation of gym rats.
"We have to get them started at an early age," said Jan Hertzfeld, health and fitness director at the Mesa YMCA. "It’s hard enough to get adults to exercise and eat right, and that’s why it’s so important that we instill the knowledge and the habits in kids when they’re young."
One way to do that is through fitness classes aimed at 8- to 12-yearolds who are too old for traditional ingym day care and too young to be turned loose in the weight room.
At the Y’s Action Hour and Gilbert’s Children’s Aerobics, kids are encouraged not only to jump rope, run laps or blaze a path over and around a stationary step, they also learn the names of muscles, where their favorite snacks lie in the food-guide "pyramid" and why exercise is important.
"It’s touching on the whole spectrum: Fitness, nutrition, staying hydrated, being healthy," said Teresa Spence, fitness instructor at Freestone Recreation Center in Gilbert. "But I try not to get too detailed with them because they are just kids. And you have to make everything fun to keep them interested. They have shorter attention spans."
Which is probably why kids’ classes, though they mimic their adult counterparts in objective and style, have a distinctively playful feel. Instead of standing around between exercises, kids keep moving, balancing on their bellies on stability balls and flailing their limbs in impromptu dances. Instead of following their instructors’ directions in silent concentration, they chatter, ask questions, say "Look at me!" and vote on whether to head to the track or stay in the studio. Although at first glance it might seem like chaos, the program seems to be working for some families.
"I’ve noticed a big change in his self-confidence," said Gregg Castle of Mesa, whose 11-year-old son, Sean, has participated in Action Hour since January. "He wasn’t getting enough exercise. We took him to the doctor and found out his lungs weren’t developing properly because he wasn’t moving enough."
The Castles, who have five children, joined the YMCA as a family, and they’ve given themselves one year to get in shape for a family hike in and out of the Grand Canyon’s Havasupai Falls.
"It’s so much easier for him if we do it together," said Sean’s mother, Dawn Castle. "We’re not pointing fingers at anyone. We’re doing it as a healthy, positive thing for everyone."
The Mesa and Gilbert classes were started with the idea that parents and kids could work out at the same time, letting children see fitness as a positive force.
"Involving my kids definitely helps," said Lorci Gaston of Mesa, whose 8-yearold son, Jessie, is new to Action Hour. "Because if I tell them we’re going to come work out or go for a walk or something, they don’t let me forget. They remind me: ‘Mom! You said we could do this!’ and I have to follow through."
According to instructors, parental involvement is key, however children get their daily dose of activity.
"The kids just attack us and hang all over us," said Nicole Schmidt, who handles the nutrition portion of Action Hour. "It’s because we’re interested in them. We play with them. At this age, their parents are still gods to them; their parents could be the ones doing this and leading by example."
Look no further
While some gyms, such as Bally Total Fitness and the YMCA, offer kid-friendly courses, city and town recreation departments offer fitness opportunities for children of all ages, often at a cheaper rate. Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale publish their offerings online and in seasonal booklets. To find out more, contact your local parks and recreation department.
"Preventing Childhood Obesity"
What: Dr. Julie Crichton, dietitian Lisa Kandell and exercise physiologist Arrin Fleck present a lecture and question-and-answer session that addresses physical activity and nutrition and how technology, family structure and finances play a role.
When: 9 to 11 a.m. May 15
Where: Scottsdale Healthcare Conference Center, 9003 E. Shea Blvd.
Information: (480) 675-4636 or www.shc.org