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In the battle against the American bulge, every little bit can help.
With that in mind, some health-care and physical-education experts are eyeing strollers. Once the province of babies, buggies are becoming luxurious conveyances for older children, to the dismay of pediatricians and others.
Strollers traditionally were used for children from "infancy up to 36 months of age," according to a definition developed at ASTM International, a nonprofit group based in West Conshohocken, Pa., that sets standards for products.
More strollers, though, are being designed to carry children through age 4 and beyond.
KidCo, a Libertyville, Ill., baby products company, introduced the LifeStyle line this year. The strollers have stepped-up weight limits - up to 50 pounds.
"You can see the trend out there," said Carole Childs, marketing manager at KidCo.
The higher weight limit, of course, allows a family to get a longer life out of a stroller, but it also reflects changes in lifestyles.
Children, as any pediatrician can attest, are bigger, which is forcing stroller makers to push weight limits beyond the industry standard of 40 pounds to accommodate even young toddlers.
But that's not all that has changed, according to marketers.
"Parents are on the go now," Childs said, often with multiple children in tow. "They're carting children around more."
Jane Clark, chairwoman of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, has taken note - and she isn't pleased.
"All you have to do is walk around a fair or mall, and you see older and older children in strollers," she said. "Parents want to cover a lot of ground and keep children from getting tired at a big event. If we overuse 1/8strollers3/8, children are not going to be as physically active."
Clark, for one, views strollers for heftier loads as part of a larger phenomenon of "containerizing" children.
"I think we're overly protective," she said. "We've taken a lot of physical play away because we think it's unsafe."
The issue of toddler activity - or inactivity - has drawn attention as obesity has grown to include even the youngest.
Nationally, more than 10 percent of preschoolers ages 2 to 5 were overweight, according to 1999-2000 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. That figure is up from 7 percent in 1994, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
In her practice, pediatrician Sandra Hassink, director of the Weight Management Clinic at A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., sees "1-year-olds with high cholesterol, 2-year-olds well over the 97th percentile in weight, 5-year-olds who can't bend down to tie their shoes."
"Now, we're starting to look at not only what children are eating, but what is their activity level," she said.
Hassink cannot help but notice that "the amount of time children are sitting seems to be increasing."
They sit while watching television. They sit while traveling by car, especially through sprawling suburbs. And they sit while riding in strollers.
Baby buggies are more alluring than ever, what with one-hand fold-up, cup holders, cell phone compartments, storage bins, and all-terrain wheels. The latest models are plush, sleek and lightweight, even if the loads are not.
"It's like a mom driving a BMW, if you know what I mean," said Mindy Moss, a buyer for FAO Inc., which includes The Right Start, a baby-products company based in King of Prussia. "It's a little bit of a status symbol."
Consider the Bugaboo Frog Stroller. It retails for $699.95. Able to navigate stairs, snow and sand, it is touted in the Right Start catalog as a stroller that "grows with your child from infancy to 4 years."
Then there's the Sit-N-Stand LX Stadium Seating Stroller ($189.95), which can hold up to 45 pounds in its front seat and 50 pounds in its rear seat.
The Buggy Board ($79.95), an attachment, allows children up to 66 pounds to "ride in comfort while standing."
"It's an investment," Moss said of a stroller.
True, carriages are handy gadgets. They keep children safe in crowded situations. They efficiently and comfortably get them from Point A to B.
Kari LaRosa of Drexel Hill, Pa., would agree. The mother of three - 6 weeks, 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 - was shopping at the mall recently.
Of course, she had her Baby Trend stroller at the ready. "If not, I'd lose her," she said, gesturing toward Samantha, the toddler.
While she mainly uses the carriage for the younger ones, even her oldest, Alexandra, likes a ride now and then. "She can't walk as long," LaRosa said.
Lou Lappen of Wynnewood, Pa., was pushing his tired 20-month-old in a stroller around Suburban Square in Ardmore. "I always take the stroller," he said. "I'm not particularly concerned about the obesity epidemic. She's very active."
Experts warn that providing a toddler with the appropriate amount of exercise is no easy task.
"You can't take activity for granted," Hassink said. "We have to be aware of creating those venues."
Last year, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education issued its first physical activity guidelines for toddlers and preschoolers. Among other things, it called for youngsters not to be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time except when sleeping, said Clark, of the University of Maryland, who chaired the task force.
At the nonprofit KidShape, a Los Angeles-based weight-management program, classes for families with overweight children as young as 3 focus on healthy eating habits, body image and physical activity - including how strollers are used.
"I think kids today, at an older age, are still being pushed around in a stroller," said Christiane Rivard, a dietitian and program director at KidShape in Los Angeles.
"We promote getting kids out of the stroller and walking. It's just one way we can fight pediatric obesity."
(c) 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.