Health clubs, exercise equipment for kids take over from play time

Many parents are enrolling their children in fitness centres or buying child-sized workout equipment, a cheaper option than hiring a personal trainer.

Like many parents, Diana Ennen had trouble getting her daughter Amber to exercise. So two years ago, Ennen decided that Amber was coming to the health club. Now age 10, Amber is using the stair stepper, lifting hand weights and doing sit-ups on a stability ball.

"She's lost some weight," said Ennen, of Margate, Fla. "Her clothes fit better. You can tell she's firmer." 

It may sound like a grown-up routine, but many parents are enrolling their children in fitness centres or buying child-sized equipment for a workout more gruelling than ballet or Little League but cheaper than hiring a personal trainer.

Last year, 1.3 million children ages six to 11 were members of a health club, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. And as of April, a quarter of IHRSA member clubs surveyed had children's programs.

At Action Kids Fitness Center, with two locations in California, children can take a 40 to 45-minute circuit training workout with resistance machines and cardio stations, including stationary bikes that connect to PlayStation 2. The centre also has hip-hop dance, yoga, karate and monthly nutrition classes.

"We really pride ourselves on the energy and excitement we put into making fitness fun," said Steve Ewing, the centre's co-founder. "We don't want them to be thinking they are overweight and obese. We want them to acknowledge that moving is fun."

The circuit workout at Funfit Family Fitness Center in Rockville, Md., has a tot-sized exercise bike, an air stepper and hydraulic strength training equipment. Kids and parents can also use personal trainers together or take classes including yoga for tots.

Such workouts are a long way from riding bikes and playing tag. But in an era of rising childhood obesity, physical education cutbacks and a more sedentary lifestyle, children's gyms make sense, said Rosemary Lavery, IHRSA spokeswoman.

Today's parents are busy working and less apt to let their children go outside and play, said Celia Kibler, founder of Funfit.

"Parents need a place where they know their kids can stay active, stay healthy and be in a safe place that's supervised by professional people," she said.

Exercise video games

Bulldog Interactive Fitness For Youth is a growing Canadian chain of fitness clubs where kids pedal bikes hooked up to PlayStation racing games, use rowing machines to escape killer fish and try out their moves on the DDR Dance Machines.

Home play has also gotten a jolt from video games such as the Wii Fit. With an electronic device called the Gamercize, children can play video games as long as they are stepping or cycling — stop stepping and the video game stops.

Kids become so plugged into the games, they forget they are exercising, said Terry Grim, director of business development for KickStart Fitness, the U.S. distributor of the Gamercize. He said about 3,000 Gamercize devices were sold in the last quarter.

Stephanie Ochoa, 32, of San Antonio, bought the Wii after noticing her children would rather play video games than ride bikes.

"At first I limited play time and forced them to be active," she said. "It did not seem right so I settled on a Wii. I purchased a Wii Fit for myself and my kids use it more than I do. It really gets their heart rates up."

Video games make teens believe fitness is "hip and cool," said Alyson Stoner, a 15-year-old actress who stars in the "Get Fit With Alyson" web series and the Wii Fit's "Get Wii Fit with Alyson."

"It's something that inspires young kids to take what they have always loved to do, which is video games, and puts a new spin on it," she said.

Interaction and fresh air

While experts agree that any fitness is better than nothing, they aren't so sure this is the answer.

Children should be outside interacting with other children, not playing video games in a musty basement, said Tony Sparber, who runs New Image Weight Loss Camps.

And considering children's short attention spans, they may not find any of these expensive toys fun enough, said Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise. He recommends simple games like duck duck goose and capture the flag.

"In the '50s and '60s, kids were playing and they were playing outside," he said. "We didn't have all these concerns about overweight, out-of-shape kids."

Kid fitness programs don't come cheap; a Funfit membership is $60 US a month without a family discount plan. A kid-sized treadmill runs about $1,500 US, said Grim. A Gamercize unit is about $300 US.

Still, Cathie Soneja, 47, of Anaheim, Calif., said her eight-year-old son Nathan is usually the one reminding her that it's time to go to Action Kids, where he does the circuit and takes hip-hop dance.

Nathan said some machines are "a little hard," but others are easy for him.

"When we first started, I wasn't that fit. Then I started seeing that I was getting stronger," he said. "It makes me feel like a teenager or adult."