At health clubs across America, chances are increasing that the person working out next to you is, like, in middle school.
That's because health clubs are focusing their attention on tweens — kids between 9 and 13 — who often are more likely to plant themselves in front of a computer screen than hit the treadmill.
Most gyms cater to adult professionals, people in their 20s and 30s. But one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the industry is people under 18. According to the International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association, this group's club memberships grew 189 percent relative to the total number of members between 1987 and 2002.
And the clubs are responding to the demand. "There is a growing segment within the club industry that is committed to providing programming for the entire family," said Bill Howland, director of research at IHRSCA. "Not all clubs are going in that direction. For those that are, it's a big part of their business."
The need for such services has never been more urgent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, increasing numbers of children are obese or have high blood pressure or cholesterol levels. In addition, weight-related type II diabetes, formerly called adult onset diabetes, was virtually unheard of in young adults a decade or so ago but is increasing across the United States, according to the center. And three-quarters of obese teens eventually become obese adults.
At the same time, many schools have removed or limited the time that students spend in gym class, and that has prompted parents to seek alternatives. According to the CDC, just 25 percent of eighth-graders are required to take physical education, and by 12th grade only 5 percent of students are required to take physical education.
A Fun, Healthy Solution
To combat weight gain, often it is mom and dad who seek programs for their tweens to become more physically active.
"A lot of times, parents are at a loss," said Christopher Tijerina, manager of Home Court America in San Antonio, Texas, which features a Super Kids Fitness program. "[The kids] don't want to be in soccer, or they might be in karate but they're not really burning many calories, especially if they have a weight issue or are dealing with diabetes."
Home Court America, which markets itself as a place for family fitness, created Super Kids Fitness two years ago as an alternative to child care for kids at the gym. But it has grown to about 125 kids, most between 9 and 12, who have their own rock climbing wall, cargo net, climbing ropes and obstacle courses, plus relay races and other group games.
"It had to be something that was fun and entertaining for the kids to do so that they would want to participate, yet at the same time something that their parents would see the results," Tijerina said, adding, "We're not only working them out physically, but they're learning to interact with the other children."
In addition, after proper training, children as young as 8 are allowed to exercise alongside their parents. And there is a specific youth strength training program that safely stimulates muscle growth and helps burn calories. "People come from all over town just because they've heard we have a kids' exercise program," Tijerina said, adding that some even drive a half-hour to get there.
Similarly, the Columbia Gym in Columbia, Md., offers clinics in basketball, soccer and lacrosse to help improve kids' organized sports skills. But there also are ongoing recreational classes and camps that "try to tailor the program to meet the needs of the inactive generation," said Leslie McLemore, assistant program coordinator of the Wee Kids Youth Sports program. Her own children, 13 and 8, both participate in the programs. "They always have a good time," she said. "I'm really pleased from just knowing my kids are going to maintain an active viewpoint. It's fun, it's social, it's safe."
Town Sports International, which operates a chain of health clubs in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., has been catering to younger members with its Yoga for Kids classes and Youth Sports Conditioning programs at several locations and will be expanding to others next month, according to spokeswoman Lisa Hufcut. In addition, due to increased demand, the clubs now accept members as young as 14, rather than the previous age requirement of 18.
For the Martin family of Waldwick, N.J., the local New York Sports Club has become a second home for Alexandra, 10, and Jennifer, 6. "I really like to do the dance program and some of the gymnastics," said Alexandra, a fifth-grader. "We also do swimming, so there's a lot of sports and activities."
Their mother, Stephanie Martin, said she and her husband Gary limit the girls' television viewing to less than an hour-and-a-half a day, but the children are motivated on their own to exercise. "They're mostly out there playing, jumping and running," she said.
"It's so important at this point, only because I'm overweight a little and I don't want them to deal with this," she added. But the girls are so enthused, "I never have to ask them to do it."
A National Concern
Health officials, as well as parents, are taking notice of the weight problems. "We've really seen what I think many people would refer to as an epidemic of obesity in the last 15, 20 years," said Stephen Daniels, a professor of pediatrics and environmental health at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center who works with the American Heart Association. About 15 percent of kids are now obese, he said, and that number grows as they become even less physically active in their mid-teens.
It is important for kids to find something they enjoy that keeps their interest and raises their pulse at the same time, he said. "To be active, maybe even be active with other kids their age and have a good time doing it, that's perfect in my mind," he said, adding, "You don't have to get down to your ideal body weight to improve your health. Even a 5 percent or 10 percent weight loss can be very beneficial."
To help get kids to become more active, the CDC has created a five-year national campaign, "Verb. It's what you do," promoting physical fitness among tweens. The campaign works with community groups and schools to get kids involved in physical activities.
Janet Collins, acting director of the division of adolescent and school health at the CDC, said health club programs are just one way to encourage kids to exercise.
But perhaps even more important in the age of Playstation, Web surfing and TV, she said, is for parents to limit the amount of kids' "screen time" to under two hours a day. "A lot of kids in this age range are ratcheting up to four and five hours of sedentary screen time a day," Collins said. "It doesn't leave time for them to get active."
And, according the Howland, that's often what prompts parents to take kids to the gym. "One thing the clubs are hearing from parents is that they're concerned about inactive children, children leading increasingly sedentary lives with fewer and fewer outlets from a school phys-ed standpoint," Howland said.
Getting kids involved early is important, but perhaps the best part is keeping them enthused. "It's different from competitive sports that quickly weed out a non-athletic kid," he said.
Keeping kids active really boils down to one ingredient, Howland added: "Fun."