Lexi Wolfe swings her arms behind her, bends her legs, then leaps smoothly to the top of a square platform. She teeters a little as she lands, so she tries again. Again. And again.
Nearby, under the watchful eyes of a fitness trainer at Velocity Sports Performance in Baltimore, three other kids are practicing the same moves. Swing arms. Bend legs. Some landings are more graceful than others: These are not Olympic athletes, after all. These are children ages 8 to 10.
Exercise for kids used to seem simple, didn't it? Moms and dads gave children a bat and a ball or a bike, pointed to the door and said, "Go outside and play."
These days, when gym classes seem nearly extinct, virtual games have supplanted games of tag and ball, and fast food seems to be everywhere, keeping your children active can be challenging. Faced with frightening facts about rising obesity, some parents are hiring personal trainers for their children - or are signing them up for group training. And parents say the fees, which can range from $50 to $100 for an individual session, are worth it.
"Parents see all the news about fitness and health and obesity and want to make sure their child isn't heading that way," says Frank Maiorana, sports performance director at Velocity.
"The kids we work with range from the boy or girl who is a little bit awkward and their mother or father wants them to move a little better to a kid who has aspirations of playing in college."
More than a million children ages 6 to 17 worked with a personal trainer last year (up from about 825,000 in 2005), according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a nonprofit group that tracks the fitness industry. That represents about 17 percent of the 6.3 million Americans who hired personal trainers last year.
Most parents who hire trainers for their children do so to improve their already-athletic offspring's skills in a particular sport. But a growing number hope that personal coaching will help their child to lose weight - and to get into the habit of exercising.
There's good reason for concern, say experts. The number of obese children has nearly doubled in the last three decades, according to the American Obesity Association, an organization dedicated to changing public policy related to obesity. About 15.3 percent of children (ages 6 to 11) and about 15.5 percent of adolescents (ages 12 to 19) are considered obese.
"I'm definitely seeing more kids who either need help with weight loss or their parents just want them to be more active because they see their kids doing things that require less physical activity - the computer, the PlayStation, the Xbox," says Billy DeLorbe, a personal trainer at the Maryland Athletic Club.
At Velocity, as Lexi and the other children work out, a few parents sit on benches outside the gym, waiting patiently for the session to end. The long-term goal of the jumping exercise is to teach "explosion and power," says trainer Adam Braugher. But to Lexi's mother, the real goals are prevention of injury - and having fun.
"I've never really been big on personal trainer stuff," says Julie Wolfe, mother of 9-year-old Lexi and her twin brother, Christopher, both of whom are in the class. "I was very skeptical. You don't want to push anything intense, but they like it."
Both children have played soccer and other sports since they were 3 years old, she says. What persuaded her to sign them up at Velocity was her concern about sports injuries.
"Injury is what scares me, and the fact that we're doing what we can to prevent that makes me feel better. And if they get faster - great. I think they have. But they're more confident, and that is what's really great."
Encouraging long-term, healthy habits was Phyllis Chackman's goal when she hired a fitness trainer for her 12-year-old son Jake.
"I recognized that he was not participating [in sports] at the levels he needed to for health, and that he needed someone to work with him on a one-on-one basis to get in shape because he wasn't motivated to do it," says the Baltimore County mother of two. "It is mostly to get him on track and establish discipline."
Chackman chose fitness trainer Marc Spataro to work with her son because of Spataro's ability to relate to youths, she says. "I looked for someone good with kids who could really help Jake get in shape and make him see the importance of exercise."
Spataro, who owns Fitnology, a wellness center in Timonium, has seen a steady increase in the past five years in children working with fitness trainers.
He typically begins with a discussion about nutrition. Children, he and other trainers say, are at the mercy of menu choices made by their parents. "Without good nutrition you will never get the positive results you are looking for," he says.
Of course, there are other differences between a child and an adult to consider - from emotional and physical maturity to attention span - when forming a training program. "Most adults have a goal and a reason for being there," Spataro says. "For kids, they see it as just one more thing on their schedule. Make it fun, and chances are they'll come back and stick with it."
For some children, group training works better than a one-on-one session. For others, personal attention may create a more comfortable situation. "I like group training especially with kids. One, it's good social interaction," Spataro says. "Often a group allows more enjoyment and laughter. The key is getting a compatible group. You don't want a shy child with a boisterous, outgoing, athletic kid."
A big challenge can be keeping the children engaged in the activities. To keep his youthful clients focused, Spataro changes the activity about every 10 minutes. He also assigns "fun" homework such as dribbling a ball, riding a bike - "anything that doesn't seem like work. You tell a kid to jump rope 100 times and he will say, 'Aw. I really don't want to.'"
Columbia fitness trainer Faith Walker creates "stations" representing different types of exercises. "They jump on a trampoline. They do dumbbells and body bars, throw a ball and do Hula-Hoops. It isn't like they are pumping iron and running on the treadmill."
To keep her clients active when they aren't with her, Walker, who works part-time as a trainer and part-time as a preschool teacher, sometimes encourages her young clients to incorporate physical activity into their homework.
"I had one parent ask her daughter to do 10 jumping jacks then solve a math problem, so it made both fun."
FIT FOR KIDS
Here are a few tips for parents interested in fitness training for their children:
Look for a fitness trainer who has a degree in an exercise-related field and/or is certified by a nationally recognized organization such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association or the American College of Sports Medicine (there is no certification specific to pediatric training).
Look for a trainer with experience working with children.
Talk to other parents whose children have worked with the trainer.
Find a trainer whose style and personality are compatible with your child's.
Stay apprised of what the training program includes, particularly if there is a nutritional component.
Consult your pediatrician before beginning a program.
Make sure your child is having fun.
To learn more about how to improve your child's fitness or sports performance, go to baltimoresun.com/childfit