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Fitness can be fun, children's exercise video shows


John C. "Jack" Leonard III makes fitness fun for children. With rhymes and rhythms, he turns a strenuous workout into a lively game and leads an exercise routine that works the body and the imagination.

"I make up rhymes, change my voice or get into another character," he said. "The children love it, and I feed on their energy."

Now the game is available on a video, released last month. "Toe Belly Up Belly," named for one of the 32 exercises, shows children eager to touch toes, knees, belly and reach for the sky.

"Let's just have fun," says Mr. Leonard to a gym full of 5- to 10-year-old children. "Keep your eyes on me and we'll have a good time."

As the children respond playfully to his directions, he laughs and calls their reaction "priceless."

"Raise your eyebrows as high as you can. Stretch your mouths. Wrinkle your face." A round of giggles accompanies his pointed-lips grimace -- his trademark funny face.

"Anybody who can do that, send me a picture," he says to the camera.

Mr. Leonard, 42, of Woodbine brings 20 years of experience teaching physical education to his video production. He also coaches girls varsity gymnastics at several Montgomery County high schools and won that county's Coach of the Year Award six times.

An award-winning gymnast, with nine national titles earned during his college years at Ohio State University, he offers after-school gymnastics instruction to more than 200 children a week -- 13 of whom participated in the video production.

"I translated my success in gymnastics to other things in my life," he said. "I can lead children to find confidence and raise their self-esteem through physical accomplishments."

The 35-minute video, in which the children warm up, work out and cool down, evolved from several years of teaching. He leads them through 32 exercises approved by physicians and athletic trainers to challenge young participants.

"Children will try any exercise because they are less inhibited," he said. "They will copy what you do. I challenge, and they see if they can."

Staying in shape is "being good to yourself," he assures the group.

He never lectures in his class. He plays.

"Now we are going to help Dave Deltoid get a workout," he says.

"Who's Dave?" asks one child, who soon is flexing his shoulder muscles.

The children do crazy eights and lazy eights as they "help" Terry Triceps and Pete Pectoralis in the fight against "Bad Mr. &L; Cholesterol."

As he counts to 10, he gets "stuck" on "six, six, six" until the children yell out "seven."

A limber Mr. Leonard faces the children and participates in each activity. Or is it Mr. Leonard?

The teacher whirls around and introduces the DJ from WGYM playing top tunes and urging the kids to rock and roll.

He whirls again and out comes "a very old man" with the deep voice of Count Dracula. "Grab your knees. Now grab your tootsies," says the count with a laugh.

Children don't like painful stretching exercises, he says.

Children following Dracula's directions are enjoying themselves and forgetting about the difficulties of reaching their toes.

"They watch me and don't know it's hurting," he says.

"Kids are so excited to have an instructor participate. I face the kids and do everything with them."

He doesn't place any performance pressure on the children. Those viewing the tape for the first time may not be able to complete the entire program.

"Do only as much as you feel comfortable doing," he says. "You can't get into shape in one day."

Exercising to a story is an especially effective teaching tool, he says.

"We as adults are smarter and more creative. We should use that to bring out the best in kids."

He has developed "action imagination" exercises. In the video, he taps into childish reveries and takes the children skiing. Participants put on imaginary equipment and trek off to the hills.

Although "children have a natural energy," he assures them "It's OK to be a little tired and feel your heart rate get faster. You will be getting rid of Bad Mr. Cholesterol."

The video, produced by Beach Associates in Falls Church, Va., is available -- for sale or rental -- at Video Tonight in the Woodbine Shopping Center.

It is entered in a national film contest to be held this spring. Mr. Leonard said he is waiting to see how it fares in competition before he tries to arrange wider distribution.

Murray Summers, owner of the video store, said children are really taking to the tape. Parents are renting it over and over. Maybe Mr. Leonard's enthusiasm is catching.

He is already planning a sequel: "Toe Belly II."

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