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Kids Battling the Bulge

How fitness centers are helping children fight obesity.

DAVID RIVERS LOVES to explore outdoors. He is a happy, active, confident 11-year-old boy with a large circle of friends. However, a year ago, he was shy, overweight, and teased and bullied at school. He was lethargic and did not participate in playground activities. Tammy Rivers, his mother, credits the dramatic change in his lifestyle and attitude to California FitKids in Corona, Calif. "Prior to his joining California FitKids, it seemed like we were buying new pants for David every three months," shesays. "His face was so puffy he could barely open his eyes. He never ran anywhere; he basically just shuffled along. He now runs everywhere and participates in playground activities, and his grades have improved tremendously."

David's parents were concerned about his weight gain, and even took him to a psychiatrist to determine the root of the problem. "[The psychiatrist] basically told us that we had the problem because we were concerned about David's weight; that it was not good for his self-esteem to acknowledge the fact that he was overweight," says Tammy. "That's when we decided to do something proactive, and signed him up at California FitKids."

Now David works out three to four times a week for 30 or 45 minutes -- and loves the results. "Kids used to call me mean names like 'bowling ball,' but they don't do that anymore," says David."I like working out; it's fun and I have made lots of new friends."

Read on to find out about FitKids and other fitness centers that offer programs to help children lose weight.

Labor of love

Renee Spurlock, owner of California FitKids, says her fitness center is a labor of love. "Our goal was to open a facility that would offer an opportunity for change for overweight and out-of-shape children in a non-intimidating, fun atmosphere," she explains."A child who feels good about himself or herself has a jumpstart on the path to becoming a happy, well-adjusted adult. We emphasize fun, not winning or losing, [thereby]eliminating the fear of failure."

Most children need structured programs to be successful. "We realized that fun and variety were the keys to keeping the program fresh for the kids," says Spurlock. "We also understood that parents were going to be concerned about safety, so all of our staff has been certified through NESTA [the National Endurance & Sports Training Association, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.], and are well-qualified to work with the kids."

Another success story is nine-year-old Anthony Cadena. Anthony, also an overweight child, has cerebral palsy, and for years endured poor posture and problems with large motor skills due to a bad leg. Anthony lost two pants sizes in his first month at California FitKids, and his posture has already improved. His school's physical education coach also noticed a tremendous change in his willingness to participate in playground activities. Anthony's mother, Hope Alvarez Cadena, says that there have been more than physical improvements. "Anthony's whole attitude, self-esteem and confidence have greatly improved," says Hope."He is so proud that he is a member of California FitKids; it's his gym. The staff works closely with him to encourage and motivate him. He loves the equipment and the fun activities. This has been the best investment we have ever made." Anthony is rightfully proud of his progress. "I couldn't make it across the climbing wall the first time; now I am setting world records," he says.

Big changes in little kids

Annette Walters, owner of Fitness Solutions for Kids in Akron, Ohio, has seen similar results with her elementary school-aged clients. "It is very rewarding to see the changes in our kids, both physical and psychological," she says. "We do assessments on the kids initially so that we can monitor their progress over time, but results are evident almost immediately -- especially changes in attitude. Our goal is to provide a fun introduction into a fitness lifestyle in a fun, non-intimidating, non-competitive supervised format. We are pleased that we have accomplished this goal in hundreds of kids so far," says Walters.

One such member of Fitness Solutions for Kids is 10-year-old Elise Rybak who weighed 145 pounds and could not perform one push-up prior to joining the facility. "I lost 10 pounds just coming in the first month," she says. "I like the machines and like watching the coaches be silly."

Elise's mother, Yvette Rybak, says, "This program may just be an answered prayer for Elise and me. We live in a rural area without activities like biking and roller skating. After [I had] to go back to work, I didn't have a lot of time to prepare healthy foods, so we ate convenient foods. Both of these factors affected Elise's weight. Now she is excited about being healthy, and she is energized in school. She's actually doubled the amount of crunches she can do, and she's gung-ho on the program."

Going beyond the gym

Exercise, however, is only half the battle, says Registered Dietitian Lucho Crisalle of Exercise & Nutrition Works Inc., Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. "Actually, both halves of the weight-loss equation are equally important," says Crisalle."It is just as important to instill in children proper nutrition as it is to introduce them into proper exercise. It is also important to dispel some common myths of what is healthy for kids to eat. For example, most of today's juice drinks are full of sugar, and candy that says 'fruit' on the label is still candy."

David, Anthony and Elise are good examples of the results of permanent lifestyle changes that can be enjoyed when there is a proper balance of exercise and nutrition. Obesity in children can be overcome, but it is up to the fitness industry to offer the services and programs necessary to combat this growing epidemic.

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