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.