Mini Treadmills: Anti-Obesity Tool or Death of Playtime?

The country can't deny it; America's kids are getting overweight at an alarming rate. The latest numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate 16 percent of children are obese and an additional 15 percent are overweight.

In the last year, the toy industry has thought up a way to help: treadmills for tots. In fact, kids-sized gym equipment and kid gyms are popping up in elementary and middle schools on both coasts. Even some adult gyms now offer child sections.

Parents and toy companies say the child-size equipment can get kids moving and teach a healthy habit. But exercise and child psychiatry experts say at the wrong age, for the wrong reasons, child exercise equipment may do more harm than good.

Workouts for Tots

"That trend has really been stepped up in the last two to three years," said Renye Rice, a toy trend specialist with the Toy Industry Association.

Rice said this year parents can now buy the Fitness Fun MyTreadmill, the Glide a Stride elliptical machine. Or, for $99, parents might choose the Fisher Price Smart Cycle stationary bike that hooks up to the television.

"The action on the TV is moved along only when they're cycling," said Rice. "It gives them a reward for actively moving."

Products like these fall into the new genre of "exertainment," which tries to satisfy children's tastes and the concerns of the parents.

"The thought was really, that it was something the parents are going to see as being really beneficial," said Ticia Will, senior product manager for International Playthings Inc., which makes the Fitness Fun treadmill.

"So at the same time while they're playing at being grown up, they're moving," said Will.

But according to child psychiatrist Dr. Michael Brody, running on a treadmill enough to get exercise doesn't equal play.

A Sign of Our Own Problems?

"These are not toys -- toys are supposed to act as catalyst for play," said Brody, who chairs the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry TV and Media Committee.

"Play is supposed to be about what is bothering the kid, what the kid needs to work out," said Brody, who added that persuading young children to exercise on fitness equipment satisfies parental competition and anxiety over weight more than the child's concerns.

Instead of workout equipment, Brody recommends old-fashioned social games like tag, ballgames or capture the flag.

"There's a lot of psychological merit of those games," said Brody. "Kids need to play, they need to have fun and they need relationships. When I'm working out by myself with the elliptical it's me and the TV and it's very isolating, but I'm an adult."

If parents wanted kids on exercise equipment at home, Brody recommends only buying for older ages. "It has to be for an 8 or 9-year-old, or an older child," said Brody.

While older kids may handle the social isolation of workout equipment better, exercise expert Cedric Bryant still wonders whether kids will like it.

In Exercise, Age Matters

"They're going on the assumption that you can treat kids as little adults, and they're not," said Bryant, who is a chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise.

"Kids like to start stop interval activities things that have an element of game and play to them," said Bryant. With a single piece of equipment, "you're probably not going to have long term appeal."

Yet, some entrepreneurs in fitness have plenty of success stories incorporating exercise equipment in specific ways.

In Grass Valley, Calif., a group of former psychical education teachers formed a fitness company for older children ages 6 and up called Kick Start Fitness for Kids.

Phyllis Rogers, a partner at Kick Start Fitness for Kids, said the exercise and "exertainment" equipment fills a fitness void for children who don't like traditional sports.

"I can tell you as a former P.E. teacher, out in activity or a game you have 25 percent of those kids engaged," said Rogers, who added the rest of the kids are just not interested, not in shape, or not socially comfortable participating.

Fitness Can Be Non-Competitive

In a Kick Start Gym, "it's a non-competitive environment. First and foremost," said Rogers.

Kim McMahon, a parent in Arizona, said her sons, 8-year-old Sam and 11-year-old Sean, have blossomed at the local kids' gym.

A child sits on fitness equipment designed for an older age group of 6-15.

Three times a week, the McMahons visit the Fitness Institute and Kids Fitness Institute of Scottsdale, Ariz. which offers kids-size equipment, games like Dance Dance Revolution, bikes hooked up to video games and a staff to direct and occupy the kids age 6-15.

"It's so hot here the kids can't go outside they tend to stay inside more and tend to be obese more," said McMahon.

McMahon said she was especially concerned for her son Sean, who is autistic and not good at social team sports.

"For years I have wished that I could find someplace for him to work out for him it has done a tremendous amount for his self esteem," said McMahon. "He told his friends he goes to the gym. They're looking at him impressed and say 'you work out?' He said 'yeah!'"