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Military Fitness Centers Encouraged to Offer More for Youths

Programming for younger generations on a military base provides new opportunities for fitness centers. But it must be done correctly.

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When thinking of military members, images of fit men and women running endless miles and working hard doing everything from swimming to indoor cycling to Cross-Fit is what typically pops to mind. But, turn that image into a family portrait and the image may look a little different, especially when service members' children are in the picture.

Obesity numbers in children - 20 percent of 6 to 11-year-olds are obese while 18 percent of 12 to 19-year-olds are obese - indicate a need for military fitness centers to offer programming opportunities that serve younger potential exercisers.

An unhealthy start to life for children brings a propensity of health problems down the road. Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults and are therefore more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis, according to the CDC.

Perhaps even more surprising, research shows that children of military members may be at more risk of being overweight than civilian kids despite the role-model parents at home.

The award-winning research paper published in the Journal of Family Medicine "Are Children of Military Parents More Physically Fit Than Children of Civilian Parents?" looked at civilian and military third graders to find out if having traditionally more active parents in the military had an impact on the fitness level of their children. The study found that of the 170 students who completed the study, children of military parents had lower scores on the mile run and lower scores on other measures of fitness than did children of civilian parents. The researchers found that, as with most children, TV and socio-economic factors contributed to the lack of fitness for the children of military parents.

"The disconnect is that we live in an environment that encourages unhealthy behaviors and makes healthy choices more difficult," says Dr. Steve Daniels, professor and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. "Kids face this on a daily basis. The recommended level of physical activity is 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. To get kids to do this on a regular basis and stick with it, the physical activity must be fun."

While some military fitness centers provide space and activities for kids, it may take more. Just like they are for their parents, traditional fitness programs and techniques can be effective, but not always enough to get kids excited and committed to living a healthy lifestyle.

"The first thing when programming that a military fitness center can do is embrace the concept of play-based activity," says Pat Rigsby, Co-Owner of Fitness Consulting Group. "Exercise shouldn't be viewed as work, and if it is, kids will be far less likely to embrace it. If activity is fun kids are much more likely to engage."

Another consideration is the quickly changing tastes and shorter attention spans of the younger crowd.

"Military fitness centers can help their young members by offering a variety of different activities for kids to try," says Daniels. "Some kids need to learn skills to be more comfortable and enjoy activity more."

Rigsby adds that it may take more than just the promise of being healthier to attract and retain kids.

"Continuing to provide new opportunities and new challenges will help keep kids motivated. Kids get bored quickly so providing them with new challenges and new ways to stay active is ideal," he says. "Secondarily, making sure there is a social aspect to their activity will help keep them engaged and excited."

While there are plenty of opportunities for military fitness facilities to improve the health of service men and women, it is up to the facility staff to help recruit and retain kids no matter how solid the programming may be.

"Overall, just having a very proactive approach to get all kids involved rather than simply reacting when a child or family wants to get involved would go a long way to improving the health of children living the military life," says Rigsby.

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