Long summer evenings are perfect for kids. Hitting the ball around the yard, riding bikes, playing tag with neighborhood friends and chasing fireflies keep kids busy for hours. At least, that’s how it used to be.
For many kids today, however, the only things moving on a balmy summer evening are their thumbs, while they fill the hours with video games, social networking and texting. As these types of sedentary habits support the increase in adolescent obesity and weight-related health problems such as diabetes, fitness experts are developing new programs specifically for youth.
The St. Louis Jewish Community Center offers several fitness options for pre-teens and adolescents. “Adolescent programs need to be fun to really engage these age groups,” says Katie Hughes, assistant fitness coordinator at the JCC who directs the ‘jGame Zone,’ a fitness program that features active video games like the Nintendo Wii and Dance Dance Revolution.
“Adolescents need to be involved in activities that keep them engaged and that are enjoyable. This may be a group-formatted class where they workout alongside their peers, exercising or staying active in the jGame Zone, or gearing their workouts to a particular sport,” she says.
The JCC’s youth programs include jFit Kids for ages 6 to 11; Pilates for Kids, a class designed to develop coordination, balance, flexibility and strength in children ages 4 to 5; and Little Fit Pals, an eight-week movement class for preschoolers.
Of course, all these organized classes are good, but experts agree that it is important for parents to motivate kids toward activity in other ways. “One of the most important things a parent can do is to lead by example,” Hughes says. “Make it a family event by going for a bike ride together, getting outside and playing a sport in the yard, or taking an afternoon walk.”
Dale Huff, co-owner of Nutriformance: Fitness, Therapy and Performance Facilities, agrees that parents play a key role in encouraging good fitness habits. However, he reminds parents to temper their advice. “Be supportive, not critical,” he advises. “Kids need to understand the health ramifications of being heavier than necessary.”
Huff takes a two-pronged approach when working with out-of-shape youth. An individualized program begins with parent and adolescent meetings with a registered dietitian, followed by a structured exercise regimen with a personal trainer or sports performance enhancement coach. “Sometimes we disguise what we are trying to accomplish with the youth by focusing on their performance versus focusing too much on weight loss,” he explains. “It is much more fun to see yourself getting faster. Seeing these types of results is what the kids buy into.”
Nutriformance has a special area designed for adolescents that includes turf flooring, equipment that enhances athletic performance, and “coaches who are passionate about helping youth get more powerful and faster for their sport or activity,” Huff says.
Besides improving at sports and combating childhood obesity, fitness activities for kids provide many of the same benefits that adults reap from regular exercise, adds Mike Jaudes, owner of The Fitness Edge. “They have more energy, they sleep better, and they have less stress. And research shows that kids who are active do better in school,” he adds.
The Fitness Edge offers a Kid Fit program that emphasizes movement, total-body exercise and posture. “Kids who get active early in life develop a fitness lifestyle that stays with them,” Jaudes says. “They tend to stay active into adulthood, and that leads to a longer, healthier future.”