ST. LOUIS - As in any other fitness class, the participants in Erica Furrer's class warm up, then move on to their workout - sometimes doing step aerobics, sometimes weightlifting, sometimes interval training - and they always do a cool-down. They stretch, and even do some yoga; they chat a lot and switch gears often.
Furrer has to change it up often because you can't keep kids' attention for long. That's right. These Denise Austins and Tony Littles in training are just kids who are learning to make fitness an integral part of their lives.
"I think the biggest benefit of these classes is that they learn the value of fitness early in life," says Susan Hill of west St. Louis County. Her daughter, Maryan, 7, and son, Adam, 10, attend classes at Furrer's Kids `N Motion, a gym dedicated to children 3 months to 12 years.
"I like the idea that workouts will become part of their lives as adults," Hill says.
Hill started her kids there after Maryan went to a sample class with a friend. "They just love it. The other day I picked Adam up, and he was beet red and smiling, so he obviously worked hard and had a good time."
And after about six months of classes, the results are already starting to show.
"We could see a difference early on," Hill says. "Maryan told me the other day, `Mom my skorts are looser!', and Adam's long pants are looser, not as snug. It just makes them feel great."
Weight loss is a driving force in the popularity of Kids `N Motion and other fitness centers for kids. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 62 percent of children ages 9 to 13 engage in no organized physical activity outside school, and 23 percent of children in that age group engage in no free-time physical activity at all. With the increasing awareness of the dangers of childhood obesity, fitness centers designed especially for children are starting to pop up across the country.
"Childhood obesity is a huge problem," says Mary Lee Stephens, who owns The Little Gym in St. Charles, Mo. "That's sad. The health risks are increased, and it can also cause behavior and social problems. That's where a noncompetitive athletic environment comes in and can really help these kids."
NEW FITNESS CENTERS
Some children's fitness centers, such as The Little Gym and My Gym Children's Fitness Center, use gymnastics-type skills to teach fitness. Others, such as Kids `N Motion and Gold's Gym, offer kid-size versions of traditional fitness classes.
Furrer, who opened Kids `N Motion about a year ago, said she saw a real need for kids' fitness in the area.
"There really wasn't any place doing adult-type fitness for kids at the time," she says. "I felt this was an area I could really help people."
Furrer, who used to work as an occupational therapist, says she sees all types of kids at her facility, from overweight and obese children to kids whose parents recognize the value of fitness and want to instill that value in their children.
Either way, she says, "I tell the parents not to tell the kids they are going to go play with Erica. I say they are going to go exercise with Erica. We want a good association between exercise and fun. It's not just about playing."
Most of her students come in one day a week, though some come in twice a week. (Classes cost $115 for one day a week for an eight-week session). The children work on a variety of things each week: yoga, circuit training, resistance training, aerobics, step aerobics, balance and coordination. Her gym has fun things such as balls and a seesaw, in addition to treadmills, bikes and weights specially made for her pint-size customers.
"We want this to be fun," Furrer says. "Kids don't do something if they don't want to. As adults we suck it up and do it because we have to, but kids aren't there yet."
One of her goals is to help kids be prepared for gym life after they leave her gym (around age 12). "Some kids can be intimidated by gyms, but if we teach them now how to use the equipment, they can have the confidence to know what they are doing."
It's also important to teach the kids how to pace themselves. "Kids have a tendency to pedal real fast, then they tire out and stop. Then they pedal fast again. We help them learn to pace themselves so they can go longer."
The environment at Kids `N Motion and similar gyms is noncompetitive. "We play games, but generally no one wins," Furrer says. "The emphasis is never on who won. This is about positive feedback and confidence building."
At a few area Gold's Gym locations, kids are starting to get in on the action, too.
A mother came into the gym with her 11-year-old daughter one day and asked what the club could do for her girl, says Kimberly Knoll, group fitness manager for three area Gold's Gyms. "One of our general managers came to me with that. I realized we needed a program to encourage parents to bring their children."
While many area gyms don't allow children under 16 to work out on the equipment, Gold's Gym will if the child is with an adult. But Knoll wanted something more. So she helped institute a Kids Dynamics class at the Concord and Maryland Heights locations and a Kids Hip Hop class at the Manchester location.
The classes feature 45 minutes of cardio and strength training (learning how to do push-ups, sit-ups and squats). "It's important that the kids learn proper form on this now," Knoll says.
Then for 15 minutes they go over nutrition and health advice. "The fast-paced life we lead is fast food," Knoll says. "This group setting allows children to get inspiration from other children."
With four franchises in the area (and another opening in September), The Little Gym may be the best-known of the gyms for kids. Mary Lee Stephens and her husband, Mark, own The Little Gym in St. Charles.
"We really try to distinguish ourselves from competitive gymnastics centers," she says. "We try to teach physical skills through gymnastics. That way the kids learn motor skills, social skills, cognitive skills, and they play games for fun."
The Little Gym teaches kids from 4 months to 12 years. The classes are high-energy, yet the kids get individual attention. And again, the focus is not on competition. "We want this to be as safe and nurturing as possible," Stephens says. "You don't have to be your best. Just try your best."
At the new My Gym Children's Fitness Center in Ellisville, Mo., owner Lisa Beasley says the focus is on building self-confidence in children.
The gym also features gymnastics equipment to get the kids in shape. "It's so important that they have the confidence," Beasley says. "The whole issue with kids being overweight is that they don't have a lot of activity with TV and video games. This gives them something they can be good at and have fun doing."
(c) 2004, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.