Sweating with the oldies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Calvin Combs, 12, wanted to hang out with his friends. Kameron Cooper, also 12, hoped to get stronger. Dan Sallitt, 14, sought an edge at baseball tryouts in the spring.

For these reasons, the young tween- and teenagers found themselves in an unlikely place: among the treadmills, exercise bikes and stair-stepping machines at the Howard County YMCA, where adults come to sweat.

They all signed up for a fitness class being offered at YMCAs around the country that teaches children as young as 12 how to navigate the exercise rooms on their own.

The young trainees are just a few of the local children who have found their way into adult gyms and health clubs. During a class at a Baltimore yoga studio, kindergartners and preschoolers stand on one leg. At the Bel Air Athletic Club, preteens and teenagers sprint in a program called XT - for "xplosive training" - while younger children burn calories on a rock-climbing wall.

A program called Girls on the Run of Baltimore, a branch of a national initiative, helps girls from third to eighth grade train for a 5K run. At a Timonium club, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts sign up for group conditioning programs to help earn fitness badges. Life Time Fitness centers, with branches in eight states (not including Maryland), have hip-hop fitness classes for kids ages 5 to 16, and teach kids over 10 how to use all areas of the gym.

For a country in the throes of an epidemic of child obesity, kids in the gym sounds like a good thing. But is it?

"I have very mixed feelings," says Jim Pivarnik, a professor of kinesiology and epidemiology at Michigan State University. On one hand, he says, at least the kids involved are doing something. "The minuses are, kids are not little adults," he adds. "They're not going to do anything long-term if it's not fun."

The problem has been well-documented: Researchers say a combination of too much television and video games, cuts in school physical education programs and a sugary, high-fat diet have left kids dangerously out of shape.

Fifteen percent of school-age children are estimated to be obese, and the American Heart Association reported recently that more than 10 percent of U.S. children from ages 2 to 5 are overweight, up 7 percent from a decade ago.

A Centers for Disease Control survey released in 2003 found that nearly 23 percent of children ages 9 to 13 weren't physically active at all in their free time.

At the same time, there's another group of young people interested in getting into the gym - the aspiring athletes who want an advantage in the increasingly competitive world of school sports.

The XT classes, offered at the Bel Air Athletic Club and 10 other Wellbridge-owned clubs around the country, work with youths from ages 8 to 18 on basics such as running form. The classes, which started in September, use the running tracks and basketball courts at the gyms.

"Our kids don't know how to really run anymore," says James Warren, a professional trainer who designed XT. "Kids these days are either competing or playing Nintendo. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground."

Some parents enroll their children in gym-based programs as a convenience, trainers say; they want to be able to work out themselves while having the kids in a supervised activity. But if that's the only motivation, the experts say, the child probably won't stick with the program - and may even be turned off to fitness.

"What are you gaining by putting your child in an exercise class?" asks Mary L. Gavin, a pediatrician and co-author of Fit Kids: A Practical Guide to Raising Active and Healthy Children - From Birth to Teens (DK Publishing, 2004, $20). "I think children need to be active every day, and the best thing is being active in things they enjoy. That's your long-term goal, rather than taking a six-week cardio class."

Mike Jeddry of Bel Air says the XT class and working with a personal trainer have made a big difference for his 12-year-old daughter, Alex. Though Alex dances one day a week and plays on as many as three soccer teams on weekends, she needed a different kind of physical activity, he says.

It doesn't hurt that Jeddry and his wife, Phyllis, can work out at the Bel Air Athletic Club while Alex takes her class. But more importantly, Jeddry says, his daughter enjoys XT.

"In the last six months," he adds, "I've seen a dramatic change in her body shape."

Twelve-year-old Calvin Combs, who lives in Ellicott City, heard about the program at the Howard County YMCA from a friend, who raved about the weekend "teen nights" that successful graduates of the class can attend at the fitness center.

"She came here and had a really good time," he says of his friend, "so I wanted to try it."

Calvin, a dark-haired boy of average build, says he liked playing football with neighborhood friends and going to a basketball practice camp, but wanted something more.

Judith Geller took her son Jake Raitzyk, 5, to a YogaKids class at Quantum Yoga and Fitness in North Baltimore after he saw her following a yoga video at home. "I want to be there," he announced.

In the North Baltimore studio, Jake stretched, took turns pulling and pushing a partner in a rowing motion and ended the session by relaxing on a mat with a stuffed dog.

Deb Donofrio, who teaches YogaKids in Baltimore - part of a national program that started a decade ago - has noticed a boom in interest; she now teaches in schools and even leads yoga birthday parties.

YogaKids founder Marsha Wenig says she has certified more than 1,000 teachers in the method, but is wary of imitators who may not be trained in working with children. "I would rather have [instructors] who have a background with children," she says. "They can learn the yoga."

There is also the question of kids' safety in gym programs.

As long as children and teenagers are properly supervised and follow guidelines for building up a program, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Sports Medicine say strength training can benefit young people.

A key barometer of a teenager's readiness to use equipment such as treadmills and elliptical trainers is whether he or she is finished growing, pediatrician Gavin says. A late-blooming child - developmentally or physically - is more likely to get hurt, she adds.

If children - particularly those under 13 - are going to use such gym equipment, they should be closely monitored by someone with training in both the machine and in the development of young people, Gavin says. "If you don't have all those components, the child is at risk for injury."

At the Howard County YMCA, veteran trainer Richard Griffith keeps a close eye on his young charges. As the boys work out on cardio machines, Griffith asks them to check their heart rates. Calvin announces his is 201. "I can go higher," he says. But Griffith tells him to slow down - his heart rate during a workout should be between 177 and 187.

After the young people have graduated from Griffith's class, a computer program hooked up to the machines still tells the trainer whether the range of motion, speed and weight lifted is in line with their bodies. There's an e-mail system that allows him to send messages that pop up the next time each exerciser - kid or adult - hops on a machine.

Jeff Gardner, a trainer at the Brick Bodies club in Timonium, says most of the young people in his programs seem eager to work out at a club because their parents do. But he says he is careful not to turn the classes into adult workouts.

"There's never been any accidents," Gardner adds. "I keep them well below what they can do. It's not about trying to kill them."

Warren says in his XT classes, which have attracted a mixed group of out-of-shape kids and athletes seeking improvement, working in teams is key. Participants undergo a basic fitness evaluation at first - in private. After that, kids with different abilities are grouped, so that no individual's performance is very important. Often, only the entire team's time is recorded.

It's also important, Warren says, to clarify with parents at the outset what they're expecting from the program. "The kids and the parents aren't always in lockstep," he says. "Parents may want Junior to go to the NBA, and Junior just wants to have some fun."

So what does the future hold for kids in adult gyms?

Warren has been helping equipment maker Cybex test a new machine for young people and adults that uses a video game, of sorts, for motivation. A sensor will attach to the waist, to make the on-screen player move and judge the real exerciser's progress.

Warren sees it as one potential breakthrough in the obesity problem - using a technology that has taken the place of exercise to encourage it instead.

TIPS

Are you considering an exercise program outside school for your child? Here are some tips from experts about what to look for before you sign up:

Talk to your child. Is he interested in working out at a gym, taking a class, doing yoga? If not, pause. It's likely he won't stick with it.

Learn what he wants to get out of the class. Is he just interested in getting a little exercise? Or is there a specific goal, like making the travel soccer team?

Has your child finished growing? If so, he's more likely to find machines that fit. If not, he'll need an instructor to closely monitor him.

Observe a class, if possible. Are the kids having fun? Is the instructor giving enough individual attention?

Ask about the instructor's credentials. Ideally, he's not only certified in that type of fitness training, but has experience with young people.

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