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Health clubs finding ways to cater to kids' exercise needs

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SANTA ANA, Calif. - Christine Julian of Laguna Hills, Calif., watches the news on CNN as she puts in an hour on the elliptical trainer at Bodies in Motion in Irvine, Calif.

She's not the only one in her family getting a workout on a Tuesday afternoon.

Her daughter, Chloe Julian, 4-1/2, stands at the top of a thick padded gymnastics wedge in the next room. Without hesitation, Chloe extends her arms forward and effortlessly tumbles down the pad. She gets up and smiles.

The children's group exercise class is one example of how health clubs are offering parents and kids an opportunity to work out simultaneously, albeit in separate parts of a fitness center.

"It's a big trend," says Brooke McInnis-Correia, spokeswoman for the International Health Racquet and Sports Club Association (IHRSA), a fitness industry organization. "There have always been family fitness-type of centers, but they've usually been tennis and swimming clubs. What we're seeing now is the growth of children's fitness programming in your more traditional adult health clubs."

The Sports Club/Los Angeles in Irvine on Sundays offers a cardio class that helps kids 4-12 work on agility, coordination and balance. Karate classes for toddlers take place twice a week.

McInnis-Correia says it's happening because both clubs and parents recognize the need for kids to have more fitness options wherever and whenever possible, especially because physical activity in schools is declining.

A study out last week from Tufts University underscored the need. It found that girls who were pudgy as fourth-graders in the 1960s were nearly eight times more likely than their peers to be overweight as they crested middle age.

"It's quite astounding - this shows that we can't afford to wait," said Vivien Morris, a Boston Medical Center nutrition specialist involved with an initiative that brings girls to a health center pool to help them shed pounds before they hurtle into adolescence.

Fitness class for kids "allows the family to go to the health club together," McInnis-Correia says. "Parents don't just drop off their kids for babysitting. It's a win-win for both parents and kids."

That's exactly the reason Julian, 42, included Chloe in the family membership at the club nearly two months ago. Julian and her husband were members of another fitness-center chain, but switched to Bodies in Motion when they learned about the Kids in Motion program. The stay-at-home mom says she likes the idea of being able to work out on the treadmill or elliptical trainer while Chloe participates in a supervised group exercise class.

On a recent Saturday morning, the entire family spent an hour on their respective activities at the gym before going out to lunch and a movie at the Irvine Spectrum. "It fits into our lifestyle," Julian says.

And there's the aspect of modeling a healthy habit.

"Chloe sees that Mommy and Daddy exercise, so she's learning that it's a good thing to exercise, too."

Kids weren't always welcome to work out at their parents' health clubs. "In the past, children have been viewed as a liability to clubs," McInnis-Correia says. "Kids' programming was not offered because clubs didn't know enough about what's safe for kids and who would watch them."

But as more studies show that children can benefit from learning to enjoy regular physical activity, even as young as preschool age, some clubs are seeing kids in a different light: as customers that they can potentially keep for many years.

Finding group exercise formats that kids enjoy is still a work in progress, says Bruce Gordon, chief executive officer of Bodies in Motion. The fitness center chain offers yoga, dance, martial arts and strength-training classes.

What works for adults isn't necessarily effective with kids, so children's classes can't be pint-size versions of adult classes, Gordon says. For one, kids have a much shorter attention span than adults. Children also need much more supervision, and descriptive instructions customized to their stage of development.

Gym classes for kids are a good approach to the obesity problem, says Stephen Virgilio, chairman of the department of health studies, physical education and human performance science at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. But parents need to do their homework and find out about the classes before enrolling their kids, he adds.

Not only should the classes be safe, they should be fun and enjoyable so that children look forward to attending them. That aspect of fitness is common to parents and kids alike, if physical activity is going to be a lifelong habit.


(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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