Feature Article - March 2012
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Fit for All Ages

Reaching New Demographics Through Targeted Fitness Programming

By Chris Gelbach

Pire, whose business includes fitness consulting for outside facilities, worked on the opening of a club in New York's Rockland County that included an athletic training center, a large fitness center for adults, and a separate youth fitness zone with treadmills, selectorized equipment and video-oriented exercises such as Dance Dance Revolution and bikes that enable children to race the kid next to them on video. The advantage of such a layout is that it provides a safe environment for kids to get exercise through hour-long training sessions while their parents work out in the main gym.

"It was a great freestyle program because there was an educational component that taught kids about strength and cardio training," he said. "They went from high-touch, low-tech selectorized equipment to the treadmills to using Dance Dance Revolution to keep them engaged for the session. And when parent was done the kid would be there in the supervised waiting area, which had a bunch of computers so they could do their homework. It was very well done and very popular."

Pire noted that the youth fitness zone could be used by kids up to age 15, but that most were probably 10 to 12. "Once they hit 12 or 13, a lot of the kids are doing sports, so they want to transfer to the athletic training area," he said. "When they reach that age, you rarely see kids who are just physically active for fitness' sake."

Instead, facilities often have more success reaching teens through sports programs, or by offering field trips and other activities that can be a social as well as an active experience. "When we work with our teen club, we try to offer activities that are fun for them," said Raquel Maldonado, wellness program specialist for the Chicago Park District. "They go on ski trips and things like that so they're doing activities, but aren't particularly focusing on fitness—they're just participating with their friends in something. Portland Parks & Recreation takes a similar approach through its Outdoor Recreation program, which gives youths the opportunity to do activities such as hiking (and even summiting Mt. Hood) as well as cross-country skiing and snow tubing.

Both park districts have also found success in enticing teens to be more active through programs that include job training. The Chicago Park District, for instance, partners with the nonprofit organization After School Matters and other city agencies on Sports37 to engage Chicago's teens in activities that develop important life skills and a healthy approach to living while training them as lifeguards, coaches, officials and recreation leaders.

Portland Parks & Recreation's Youth Conservation Crew, meanwhile, provides active summer employment opportunities for a diverse population of Portland-area youth ages 14 to 18. The participants protect, restore and manage Portland's parks and natural areas while developing essential job skills by saving and planting trees, improving trails, mulching and watering plants, and teaching other kids and adults about ecology and conservation. Among its other offerings, the district also runs a two-day DJ academy that teaches kids age 12 to 15 professional DJ skills that they can use to get other teens moving at high school dances.

Family Fitness

Another approach more programmers are taking to get more people working out is to make fitness a family affair. "Our schedules and our lives are moving so fast," Maldonaldo said. "Giving parents an opportunity to participate in activities with their children is something that people should consider, because everyone's time is so limited."

The Chicago Park District offers a variety of programs to get families working out together, including Mighty Fit Family, which includes circuit-training activities that all family members can do. "A toddler is going to do a push-up a little differently than an adult, but you're still able to teach them the basic elements of holding their bodyweight up with their hands," Maldonado said. "We have a strength corner, a cardio corner, a stability corner and a flexibility corner that each family rotates through. We follow that with a team-building game that helps the family work together and at the same time get their exercise." The class also includes regular games like tag and concludes with some nutrition or sharing on a fun snack for kids and some partner stretching.