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Child's Play: Fitness Programs for Children

The growing need for more physical activity for children lends itself to structured programs at fitness centers.

Child's play in the 21st century is serious business.The need is clear. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 16 percent of children ages six to 19 are overweight. The number of overweight children has tripled in the past two decades. Further, overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. Perhaps, though, the most significant need for change is reflected in the quality of life of an overweight child. The most immediate consequence of being overweight as perceived by children themselves is the social discrimination that they suffer. The associated outcome of that is poor self-esteem and depression. Not an optimistic future if we stay on the same path we are on now.

Generation F(at)

Fitness industry professionals need to learn to adapt to the continually changing needs of clients and members: older adults, boomers, and generations X and Y. Now enter generation F: the fat generation. To fill a much-needed niche and provide opportunities for children to acquire an active identity as they grow, education of fitness professionals is part of the job. While genetics for some children may load the gun, the lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns or both combined pull the trigger. Parents need to be made aware of the fact that most children do not meet the recommendation for minutes of physical activity while in school. In addition, with too much time spent performing sedentary activities like computer games, videos and TV, and safety issues or busy lifestyles that prevent active play, children also do not get enough physical activity at home. The problem is complex and, thus, the solution must be equally multifaceted.

Active options

All children should be provided with activity options outside of organized youth sport, which is often not offered to children unless they specifically request the opportunity. For a select group of children, sports are appropriate and beneficial. For the vast majority, it may deter them from a lifetime enjoyment of activity. The overweight child, in particular, will not do well in activities that involve running and jumping.

Make it fun

Whether you offer group activity classes involving movement to music, obstacle courses or equipment-based classes, keep one thing in mind: The instructor is the ultimate determinant of your program's success or failure. No music or equipment alone will succeed; your personnel here is key. The right person for the job has two qualifications: the knowledge of what is important about the activity, and the ability to communicate that to their audience in a way that motivates them. Lastly, the right person knows that for children, if it's not fun, it won't be done. Children won't come with goals like healthy lifestyles or weight loss; their one short-term goal is to have fun. Fun for kids will mean something quite different than watered-down workouts of their parents. Children don't move in the typical adult model of endurance exercise. Their pattern of activity is more stop-and-go. Trying to impose steady-state activities on kids won't be particularly enjoyable for them. They do respond well, though, to short bouts of higher-intensity activity alternated with recovery periods. Obstacle courses and circuits lend themselves well to encouraging this type of activity, and can be manipulated to provide skill-related enhancement, including balance, agility and speed. These components fall in line with activity recommendations for prepubertal activity. More traditional conditioning exercises should be reserved for older youth. Young children can be offered a variety of activities that will appeal to them, from dance and tumbling to non-competitive skill-related activities. Older youth fall into one of two categories: prepubertal and postpubertal. Generally, adolescents who have not yet gone through their adolescent growth spurt are younger than 12 for girls, and younger than 14 for boys. The chronological age can vary dramatically; usually, postpubertal girls will be 13 to 17, and boys 15 to 18. Postpubertal youth will respond more similarly to adults in terms of aerobic activities and strength training.


Encouraging overweight children to become more physically active can be difficult. Most people are born wanting to avoid embarrassment. An overweight youth with a history of failures is particularly vulnerable. Overweight children can, however, perform as well or better than their smaller peers in strength-training activities. If they are able to lift heavier weights and experience success, their exercise efforts will be reinforced. Strength-training protocols for youth can safely involve machine weights, free weights, medicine balls, tubing or body weight. In spite of old myths, supervised youth strength-training programs that follow well-designed protocols have excellent safety records. In fact, a pool of experts believes that a large percentage of youth sport injuries could be prevented with proper movement training.

Implementing kids' programs

The problem is apparent, and the solutions lie within fitness professionals and facilities. How do you proceed with the implementation of a new program? A few suggestions follow. Personalize them to meet your own fitness center's needs. Hold a seminar on youth fitness. Your fitness center can offer a seminar for children and their parents on your new youth fitness programs. Make sure you have the right person to speak for your program, and the right person working with the children. It may or may not be the same individual. Provide proof of your credibility and build rapport. Let parents know you have done your homework. Bring in a child to demonstrate some of the activities that will be featured in an upcoming program. Let parents know that although children should be getting a recommended 60 minutes per day of physical activity, most get much less than that at school. Specifically, contact schools in your area to learn the frequency of their physical education classes. Class format. Classes should be formatted according to the way children move, rather than the traditional model of adult fitness activities. Debunk the myths related to youth strength training by outlining for parents the position statements of credible organizations such as the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Target 'tweens. Be a solution for the 'tweens in your fitness center. Too old for the nursery, too young for the weight room alone, these nine- to 12-year-olds need options. You'll decrease attrition in parents and be raising the next generation of facility members if you offer something for all children. Offer unique programs. Encourage self-monitoring and individual goal setting that allows all children to be successful by sponsoring special programs. Children could meet once a week. During this time, have a registered dietician educate them about healthy nutrition habits or introduce them to a new fitness activity. Invite a local athlete to visit and reinforce the importance of healthy habits. Build your facility's future. Together with your group fitness, personal training and racquet sports directors, come up with non-competitive ways to allow children to have fun and positive experiences with a racquet in hand or working with their own trainer. Focus on family. Children of parents who exercise are much more likely to exercise themselves. The positive effect is much higher when families are active together. Provide opportunities for this to occur with family swim time, parent/youth partner training or classes, and family fun runs or walks. Begin with small changes. Introduce a single class. Let it be cost-effective for you by charging a fee to offset the cost of equipment and the instructor/trainer. Not only is this the right thing to do and the right time to do it, your efforts to help children may just help your bottom line.

Web Resources Visit for educational products and materials developed by fitness professionals for parents, coaches and other fitness professionals working with youth. VERB, a national, multicultural, social marketing campaign coordinated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is explained at Log on to for Sandy "Spin" Slade's, formerly of the WNBA, non-competitive basketball skill-related activities and fundamental fitness drills for individuals and groups. References American College of Sports Medicine. The prevention of sport injuries of children and adolescents. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 25 (8, Supplement): 1-7, 1993. Anderson, G., and P. Twist. Trainability of Children. IDEA Fitness Journal 2(3): 57-65, 2005. National Strength & Conditioning Association. Youth resistance training: Position statement and literature review. Strength and Conditioning Journal 18(6): 18-23, 1996. Wescott, W., and A.D. Faigenbaum. Strength training for 21st century kids. ACE Certified News 11(1), 2005.
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