They like to Move It, Move It! Parents Look to the Fitness Industry to Help Combat Childhood Obesity

The Florida Times Union, November 11, 2008 | Go to article overview

They like to Move It, Move It! Parents Look to the Fitness Industry to Help Combat Childhood Obesity


Facing a generation of couch-potato kids at risk of obesity and illnesses such as diabetes, parents are spending big bucks for health club memberships, fitness equipment and personal trainers designed to get youngsters - some just toddlers - up and moving.

As the nation's schools have cut back on physical education classes, the youth fitness industry has flourished: American families now spend an estimated $2 billion a year on child fitness.

"There is an emphasis on sports in our culture, and people turn there when they are looking for ways to get their kids active," said Anthony Luke, director of primary care sports medicine at the University of California San Francisco. "Really, they are just trying to be good parents."

And businesses are tapping into that parental desire.

Youth memberships are one of the strongest growth areas for the fitness club industry, and clubs catering to young people have spread across the country. Little Gym and Gymboree offer ways for infants and toddlers to get active. Chains such as Fitwize 4 Kids offer everything from yoga to rigorous circuit training to resistance exercises.

Amy Pattison, owner of the Gymboree in The Avenues mall, is hedging her bets that the youth-fitness phenomenon won't be a passing fad on the First Coast. She recently bought the rights to a second location in Jacksonville, but she doesn't expect to open the fitness center until 2012 at the earliest.

In Gymboree's newly revised program, fitness is disguised as fun and games, Pattison said. Children from ages 3 to 5 cycle through four-week rotations playing sports such as T-ball, soccer, floor hockey and gymnastics. The old program, titled "fitness fun," mixed yoga with heart-pumping exercises, including one involving jumping on numbers on a floor map.

Even newborns are part of Gymboree's fitness push. Scarves are run through their fingers. Finger puppets are used to teach them how to track objects with their eyes. And sounds are played to get them to recognize where noises come from.

Davetta Eyster of Mandarin shuttles her 3-year-old son, Elijah Melendez-Eyster, to Gymboree twice a week with the hope that he will develop a lasting interest in exercise.

"I liked the fact it was a safe place for him to explore climbing and jumping. I had trouble with him because he was extraordinarily cautious," said Eyster, 32.

Fitness club memberships for youths age 6 to 17 have more than doubled in the past two decades, rising from 1.3 million in 1987 to 3.9 million in 2007. More than 1.3 million of those memberships were for children 6 to 11, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.

About a quarter of the adult fitness businesses in the country have children's programs, and many YMCAs (including the Williams Family YMCA in Mandarin) and private and public schools offer weight machines, recumbent bicycles and other fitness equipment for kids.

Home gyms, furnished with bright yellow treadmills and mini-elliptical trainers, tailor-made for children and selling for $300 to $1,500, also are popular. The video-game industry has joined the fitness bandwagon too. Beyond Wii Fit, Nintendo's interactive exercise program, there is also Gamercize, a device that makes video games work only when the player is stepping or cycling.

New guidelines released this month by the U. …

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