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The Children’s Crusade

This article originally appeared in the October 1991 issue of Athletic Business.

 

The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports currently boasts the most visible—literally—chairman in its 31-year history. Flexing in state after state (he pays his own way), Arnold Schwarzenegger has had a lot to say about the precipitous state of fitness in the United States, especially among our country’s youth. The news, he says in effect, is bad.

If the reams of statistics he and other concerned Americans are toting paint an accurate portrait of our young (and most adults believe they do), then this is a most curious development. Consider that awareness of the importance of physical fitness and proper nutrition is at an all-time high. Or that this decade’s plodding parents, whose inert lifestyles many suspect have trickled—or trudged—down to their children, were supposed to have ushered in the fitness craze of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Consider, also, the popularity and proliferation of health clubs over the past 20 years. Or the presumed influence over the same period of the President’s Council itself, along with dozens of other like-minded organizations.

Perhaps it is this strange contradiction—better awareness, worse health—that is fueling the current boom in fitness programs for the young. That the irony of the situation is lost on the people committed to changing our children’s play habits is probably a testament to their conviction. No matter who (sloth-like parents) or what (TV and video) is particularly responsible for our children’s laziness, these people see only a never-ending stream of young people in need of health and fitness advice, education and direction, and limited time in which to act.

This round of the fitness fight resembles a tag team event, with public- and private-sector groups making pronouncements and pushing programs to an equal degree. And while many function mainly as catalysts for change—the President’s Council, not surprisingly, has a tendency toward the President’s own “thousand points of light” philosophy—others are showing a willingness to step down off the soapbox and get their hands dirty.

 

“No pain, no gain.” The hoariest of the fitness clichés suggests one of the grimmer aspects of hardening a soft body. Working out—a pleasurable pastime, or repetitive, sweaty job?

The possibility of physical pain may make some kids choose fat over fit, but Fred Engh, president of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, says psychological pain is an even greater inhibitor.

“Of the 20 million children ages 5 to 13 participating in organized sports in America,” Engh says, “almost 70 percent will drop out because of the pressures placed on them by parents and overzealous coaches. Too often the ultimate championship is the focus of the program, rather than the development of skills and appreciation of the game.”

The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association recently completed a teenage sports participation study that bears this out. Observes Mike May, SGMA’s director of communications, “When kids come home, what they hear is, ‘Did you win?’—not ‘Did you have a great time?’ or ‘Did you play?’ If practices were more fun and winning were made less important, more kids would stay involved.”

Recently devised and implemented programs, therefore, tend to be non-competitive in nature, incorporating nonstop movement (aerobic-style) activities and stressing the fun and high self-esteem that come from living a healthy lifestyle.

Unfortunately, “Making Fitness Fun” is not only the operative phrase for the fitness-conscious ‘90s, it was also the operative phrase for the fitness-conscious ‘60s, says Richard Keelor, founder of Health Designs International in Raleigh, N.C., and a 10-year veteran of the President’s Council.

“It sounds good,” Keelor says, “but people have been saying it for more than 30 years. It hasn’t worked. We’ve tried with everything from the Surgeon General to the President of the United States, and now we’ve even turned the Terminator loose!”

The problem, as Keelor sees it, is a mistaken assumption made by health and fitness educators. “People do not make decisions about changing their lifestyle on the basis of information,” he says. “If they did, we’d be the healthiest population in the history of mankind and have among the most fit and vigorous youth.”

Still, fitness educators say that’s no reason to stop trying—and furthermore, they swear it’ll work this time around. The difference might be a more concerted effort to start with younger kids, before they’ve been turned off by hyperkinetic adults. Susan Kalish, executive director of the American Running & Fitness Association, says, echoing a prevailing view, “I feel strongly that you have to help the kids develop lifelong habits, just like you teach them to brush their teeth every morning.”

This is important, Kalish says, for a very basic reason. “We just don’t know what you do to a kid to make him healthy,” she says. “There have been studies that have shown that people who were varsity athletes when they were younger were no better off than people who had been sedentary. You’ve got to maintain it. A kid in a dynamite P.E. program who stops the moment he gets out of school is going to have the same cardiac risk problems as the person who was the fatty in the class.”

Kalish also points out the apparent folly of testing children: obese children up to a certain age (usually 12 or 13) measure up to children of average size in most fitness tests, she says.

“We still need to define what fit is,” says Kalish, “and what in the long run will make children happy, healthy adults. We can test them till they’re blue in the face, but you can’t test a kid until you know what you’re testing for.”

Setting an agenda might be easier if all fitness educators—or the various studies—led to the same conclusions. One view holds that children are not following the example of their fit parents (several speakers at SGMA’s Youth Fitness Summit in May voiced this belief); another says that the lessons of fitness and nutrition that children are taught in health education class and P.E. are being undermined by their Whopper-chomping moms and dads.

Just about the only thing nearly 99 percent of them agree on is that educating kids is the key. (Speaking for the minority, Keelor says that anti-smoking education doesn’t stop people from abusing cigarettes; however, the percentage of smokers in this country has dropped from 44 to 25 percent since 1968.) But seeing as how it hasn’t appeared to make much of an impact thus far in the area of fitness, are health educators still 100 percent behind more education? As Dean Tice, executive director of the National Recreation and Parks Association, puts it, “After a youngster has spent six hours in a classroom setting, the last thing he or she wants is to go through more education.”

 

It’s got to be fun, in other words—education camouflaged as a game, sugar-coated flakes as opposed to the plain variety. The best program must stress participation over competition, activity for its own sake.

One such program, perhaps responding to the lack of control children have over their own lives, has decided that choice is the greatest treat of all. Peggy Kiser and Roger Jeffers, physical education teachers at Driver Middle School in Winchester, Ind., developed a program they call P.H.A.T.S.—Physically Healthy and Technically Sound—that’s now in its seventh year and has begun to be duplicated by other schools in the region.

Kiser, bored with teaching the same old sports year after year, began a fitness unit for the girls one winter while the boys were wrestling, and was overwhelmed with the response she got from even her more lackluster students. Sensing an opportunity to reach children she had thought were unreachable through sports, Kiser brought her stationary bicycle form home and added to it a group of activities chosen as much for their cost-effectiveness as for their fitness potential—stretching, jumping rope, juggling, bouncing on pogo balls, power walking, soft tossing and so on. She then divided her time between keeping her class in constant motion and writing grant proposals.

The program that resulted gained the backing of the administration because of its curricular emphasis, and the $6,000 in Chapter 2 funds granted the department in the first year (and several thousand dollars in each of the next two years) allowed for the purchase of more exercise cycles, as well as rowing machines, cross-country ski trainers and a computer for keeping statistics. (Schwinn, Concept II and NordicTrack were all partial sponsors.)

Every student in the building now participates in a daily physical education program, alternating each day between traditionally sports and fitness. Students are tested at the beginning of the year and taught how to assess their own scores: thereafter, assessments are rerun every 12 weeks. Results are now being mailed to kids’ homes along with a P.H.A.T.S. newsletter.

Students are given several opportunities to exercise their freedom of choice. They divide themselves into groups of four for the fitness unit, and can develop their own programs of exercises that focus on the ones they enjoy—just so long as they keep moving. That aspect of the program was the key to dissipating whatever resistance Kiser and Jeffers faced in the first year.

“I’ve been teaching for 20 years: when we started P.H.A.T.S., it was 14 years,” Kiser says, “and for the first time I’m finally touching the life of every student in my gymnasium, where before I knew I wasn’t. The top 10 percent always loved Phys Ed because they were active to begin with, but the kids down on the other end—I was destroying their self-esteem daily.”

 

Whatever else you can say about the many private companies and consultants who develop similar programs for schools, community centers and youth sports organizations, you have to hand it to them for practicing what they preach. In an industry where myriad programs have as many similarities as they do distinguishing characteristics, their creators remain singularly noncompetitive.

“We’re delighted,” Beth Kuntzleman, president of Fitness Finders in Spring Arbor, Mich., says of her competitors. “The more programs out there, the more energy and excitement it creates.”

Beth Kuntzleman and husband Charles, the company’s national program director as well as the director of the University of Michigan’s Fitness for Youth program, have created an educational program that deals with “five areas where kids have choices,” as she says—stress management, nutrition, fitness, obesity and smoking.

The Feeling Good program is comprised of 1,100 “kid-oriented and kid-tested” games and activities that have been shown, she says, to reduce children’s coronary risk factors.

Strange hybrids of popular sports and non-stop movement appear to be the hallmark of Feeling Good. In this physically fit universe, softball— “one of the most un-aerobic activities going,” is what Beth Kuntzleman calls it—has become aerobic softball, which features all fielders except the pitcher and catcher shifting positions on defense with each pitch, and all bench players bench stepping (naturally)—to music, no less. For younger children, there’s always Red Rover, a standby that the Kuntzlemans have altered to replace standing by with an always-in-motion exercise line.

The activities in Feeling Good are united by their inexpensiveness—a variety of word-oriented games require only letters of the alphabet painted on asphalt—and a philosophy that physical activity can be used to reward, rather than to punish.

“Normally,” Beth Kuntzleman says, “when kids misbehave, they’re punished with inactivity—they sit on the sidelines. The idea behind Feeling Good is the opposite. When kids do really well on a math assignment for example, they get to go down to the gym for an extra Feeling Good workout. We never punish with a push-up.”

If the Kuntzlemans and other fitness program developers have experienced any unfriendly competition, it’s been largely confined to Phys Ed teachers, many of whom do not, it must be said, practice what they preach.

“Our biggest struggle has been getting our own profession motivated,” says Beth Kuntzleman. “A lot of Phys Ed teachers’ hearts are in coaching, and so most of our training in wellness activities has been directed at teachers, not students.”

Some particularly sedentary P.E. activities have, in fact, inspired some program developers. Pam Staver of San Jose, Calif., who is currently working on a national step program, Steptacular—Full Esteem Ahead, for Sports Step Inc. of Atlanta, is a fitness professional, an author (The Magic of Motivating Kids to Move) and a mom. She first developed Power Play, another non-competitive activities program, after learning of her own children’s experiences in Phys Ed classes.

“By the time my kids got into elementary school,” Staver says, “I realized that once they got past kindergarten, their movement education came to a screeching halt and P.E. became dodgeball. In that game, you want to get picked so you’ll be popular, and the next thing you know you’re being used as a moving target.”

Beth Kuntzleman says of dealing with established P.E. programs, “You constantly feel like you’re beating your head against the wall.” A non-competitive, non-stop movement program, she adds, is not the kind of program that can be started on a whim—it requires total involvement on the part of the instructor. “How can you walk into a gymnasium with a soda can in your hand,” she asks, “when you’ve just gotten through talking about good nutrition?”

 

Health clubs in large and small communities are responding to their young, dual-income family demographics by developing youth fitness programs of their own. Many of these occur in summer, when children are home all day. Sporting names like Kidfitt (as the new program at Central Park Athletic Club in Lisle, Ill., is called), these have an idealistic aim (getting kids fit) as well as a logistical one (allowing hard-working parents to continue their fitness regimens while raising a family).

One noteworthy venture in the Pacific Northwest has 70 clubs in three states working together to bring the message of fitness to the young. Begun in conjunction with IRSA’s public awareness campaign, the National Commit to Get Fit program, the Northwest Athletic Club Association’s Adopt-A-School program focuses on developing school-business partnerships.

Through the program, club sin the association seek to “adopt” nearby elementary schools, and design programs that use whatever resources are unique to the club and that correspond to the particular needs of the school. Students come in twice a week for activity sessions, and once a week a staff person goes to the classroom to talk about various health topics, run a nutrition seminar or address and assembly on a health issue. The school pays only transportation if it’s necessary. If the school needs information on anything related to health and fitness, they approach the club first—and if the club and school are within walking distance of each other, so much the better.

“The kids love coming to the club,” says Mollie Nelson, the NACA’s public relations director, “and because it’s right in the neighborhood, we get real familiar with them. Every club that was involved had a successful program; we got a tremendous reception from the schools, kids, parents, and even members. We don’t normally have kids in our clubs, but our embers liked seeing us do this.”

Another brand-new venture brings health clubs to high schools—and leaves them there. Dubbed Operation FitKids, the program is the brainchild of Ken Germano, national accounts manager of Cybex, head-quartered in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., and is being run with the help and support of IRSA and the President’s Council.

Operation FitKids seeks donations, from IRSA clubs, of functional but outdated (between 7- and 10-year-old) fitness equipment. Cybex then refurbishes the equipment if necessary, and ships it to high schools that meet certain criteria. Their first shipment went in September to nine inner-city schools in Los Angeles. (Germano notes that the city has been hit hard in the last year, losing 300 physical educators in all.)

It’s a simple operation that rewards all its participants with everything from good public relations to tax benefits to sales of new equipment—a classic case of making something from nothing. Says Germano, “We’re trying to show governments, school boards and state boards what can be done with no money.”

 

Tomorrow, the world. Organizations like Gary Seibert’s Kidsports International are taking America’s current obsession with youth fitness to distant shores. Seibert recently visited Seoul, Korea, as a guest of the United States Air Force, for whom he is developing youth fitness programs; Kidsports International, which is in the business of opening children’s fun and fitness clubs, will soon be taking London and possibly Argentina and Japan by storm.

The U.S. Army’s Youth Services program ran youth basketball camps in Alaska, Hawaii and Japan this past summer, and even brought teens from all over the world to Camp Wahsega (near Dalonega, Ga.) for Discovery ’91 World Teen Summit.

The fight for fitness has outgrown our backyard, in other words—and what’s more, anyone can play. The National Recreation & Parks Association’s six-week Fun and Fitness program, for example, is open to the handicapped or disadvantaged.

We could congratulate ourselves for facing head-on such a supreme challenge: every kid fit. But can we expect success unless we become true role models?

“You can’t send Johnny to learn about health and fitness, work out and get in shape,” says Kidsports’ Seibert, “and then take him to McDonald’s for dinner. It’s a mixed message.”

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