Feature Article - March 2012
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Fit for All Ages

Reaching New Demographics Through Targeted Fitness Programming

By Chris Gelbach

In the city's University Park community center, the baby gym takes place in the wrestling mat room that would be otherwise unused during the morning hours. And the morning indoor park class offered to ages 1 through 5 takes place in the gymnasium, where little cars and trikes are set up along with tunnels to crawl through and obstacles for the kids to jump over. "It's an active play space, but indoor and dry and protected and clean. And then we turn the space over and use it for other things later in the day. We also engage with home-schoolers, as well, during that downtime to help them have an active component to their education."

Many trainers and programmers find that younger children are often more receptive to general fitness programming than older kids. Such has been the experience of Mike Z. Robinson, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise and the owner of MZR Fitness, a personal training studio in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Robinson regularly partners with San Luis Obispo's Parks & Recreation department to offer children's boot camps.

"If you get kids between the ages of 5 and 10," said Robinson, "you can catch them and give them a foundation that will last them for the rest of their lives. At that age, kids love exercising. To them it's just having fun. That's the key—to make it fun. If you just walk them around and have them count out push-ups, they'll get bored. If you give them something new, like Bosu balls and ropes to slam around and jumping jacks to do, they're more into it." Robinson typically runs these boot camps twice a week for a half-hour. "If you do it much longer than that, you lose their attention really easily."

Recognizing that activity alone is not enough to combat childhood obesity, more programs are also including a nutrition component. Working with the local park district, Robinson offers a month-long after-school fitness and learning program twice a week for an hour and a half for kids ages 6 to 10. The first 20 to 30 minutes are spent working out, followed by some nutrition education, with the kids spending the remainder of their time doing homework.

The Chicago Park District includes a nutrition education component in some of its family fitness classes, and also offers Fun With Food, a 10-week after-school program that meets once a week for an hour and teaches kids about nutrition and food preparation, including ways to make healthier snacks.

Targeting Teens

One of the most prominent trends for reaching the teen demographic, according to Pire, is performance-based athletic training aimed at children who are already on sports teams. Pire has been doing this type of agility and speed training for athletic kids since he was with the Parisi Speed School in 1998. "Their home base is in New Jersey and now they're franchised all over," Pire said. "Certainly in my marketplace they were the only ones doing athletic training for high school kids at the time, and now everybody is doing it. It's aimed at kids who are already athletes and are looking to become better ones."

Pire notes that in addition to the spread of athletic conditioning franchises, off-the-shelf how-to programs for professional trainers such as Combine360 are also playing a role in furthering the trend's popularity. "Trainers have wanted to do new stuff, as opposed to personal training, for the longest time," he said. "This is one of the ways that they've been doing it."

These programs typically include children as young as 8, with the median age being closer to 12, according to Pire. The sessions typically run 45 to 90 minutes, depending on whether a strength-training component is included with the agility training, and kids typically attend twice a week. "They're typically done in small groups, instead of one-on-one," Pire said. "That brings down the barrier for entry for the user, while allowing the trainer and facility an opportunity to earn more money."

Fitness experts such as Pire find that getting sedentary teens to work out is a considerably more formidable challenge. "I've found it frustrating in finding the answer to getting these kids at least minimally active so they get some benefit from it—and they're the ones that need it most," he said.

In an attempt to reach these children by making fitness seem fun instead of a chore, facilities are starting to embrace something that teens know and love—technology. "When we first started programs aimed at these kids, we wanted to reduce their screen time," Glenn said. "But then we realized that they still want to play computer games, which are very popular with kids in our computer lab."

As a result, Portland Parks & Recreation has chosen to include active Wii games for these kids among the gaming options in their game lounges. And the Chicago Park District has rolled out 12 gaming fit zones across the city focused on interactive gaming, including dance pads and bikes that work with screens and PlayStations.