Children nationwide are tossing aside their toy trucks and Barbie dolls and replacing them with barbells, treadmills and hours logged with their very own personal trainers.
More than a million children ages 6 to 17 turned to personal trainers for their fitness fix in 2006, according to an annual survey administered by both The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association and American Sports Data, making children 17 percent of the 6.3 million who employed private fitness instructors.
Hiring a personal trainer for your child may seem excessive — sessions start, on average, at $40 per hour — but many parents are willing to fork over the money in an effort to curb their child's poor eating and fitness habits.
Childhood obesity has been a hot button issue for Americans for some time now, and numbers show that there's little improvement in addressing the flagging fitness of American kids. Since the mid-1970s, the percentage of U.S. children aged 6 to 11 years who are overweight increased from 6.5 percent to 18.8 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Similar percentages stand for kids tween and teen years.
Like the hundreds of fad-diets that exist today, personal trainers for kids may appear to be just another trendy way of addressing a very serious problem. Some argue, though, that private fitness sessions for children could be extremely beneficial.
"Personal trainers in general are able to give people a focus," said Rosemary Lavery, the spokeswoman for International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, one of the non-profit organizations that performed the survey. "Trying to start exercise at an early age is so important, especially because a lot of programs in schools throughout the U.S. have been cutting back physical education programs."
Organizations such as the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity claim that schools' efforts to meet the standardized testing requirements of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative by dropping physical education courses for more textbook instruction, have made children less active during the school day.
Dr. Goutham Rao, clinical director of the Weight Management and Wellness Center at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and associate professor of pediatrics, disagrees with the idea that cutbacks in physical education is causing childhood obesity, and believes that most physical education classes provide little exercise for kids anyway.
"What typically happens is some students participate enthusiastically and overweight kids don't participate," said Rao. "What has really changed in terms of school environments is that very few children walk to school anymore and that food being provided is very unhealthy."
The business of fitness training for kids goes way beyond one-on-one sessions with trainers, the field has expanded to include weight loss camps and a new crop of exercise boot camps.
Camp Shane, a summer program dedicated to helping overweight kids lose weight and get fit, has approximately 800 kids enrolled each season. Camp Director David Ettenberg says that personal trainers can help ease some of the hesitation many kids have about working out.
"Going to gyms can be intimidating," said Ettenberg. "You have to be really motivated and disciplined and not many of us are. A personal trainer kind of forces you to do stuff."