June 26, 2008

More Kids Hitting the Gyms for Workouts

Sarah Siebach isn't much different from most members of the Lifestyle Family Fitness Center in Cary, N.C., trying to squeeze an intense workout into her busy schedule. One recent Friday afternoon she was hoping to do the treadmill, maybe pump some weights, before heading home to shower and meet friends for dinner.

She's a lot like the gym's typical member except for one thing: She's a junior in high school.

"I love it here," she says, surrounded by rows of high-tech workout machines and ubiquitous TV monitors playing up-tempo music videos. "It makes my mind and body feel better when I'm done."

Time was kids got a workout -- which weren't called workouts -- by riding bikes, going to the neighborhood pool, playing pickup baseball. Kid stuff. Today, increasingly, they're hitting the treadmill or the elliptical trainer, doing a session on the weight machines, taking a group exercise class.

"What we're seeing now is kids taking on what normally would be considered adult exercises," says Dr. Bob Duggan, a foot and ankle surgeon in Orlando, Fla., who specializes in sports medicine.

According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, which represents about 9,100 health clubs worldwide, 4.1 million kids (ages 6 to 17) belonged to health clubs in 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available. That's up 28 percent since 2000 and a more than twofold increase over 1987, when the association began tracking kid memberships.

The group reports that health clubs are responding to the teen trend as they did a couple of decades ago when there was a new demand for women-oriented clubs.

"Whether health clubs for teens ever rack up the numbers or achieve the success of single-sex express workout clubs remains to be seen," the Boston-based association reports in its online newsletter.

But, it adds, with the nation's teens having an estimated $200 billion in spending power -- a number "expected to more than double within the next five years" -- the clubs are doing their best to find out.


Geoff Dyer still remembers the sting of being an overweight teen growing up in Melbourne, Australia.

"It's an intimidating experience to go through high school when you're obese," says the founder of the Lifestyle Family Fitness Centers.

So three years ago he began offering free summer memberships to kids ages 12 to 17. About 2,400 teens signed up the first year, 6,000 last year. This summer, Dyer says the health club chain expects 10,000 teens to take them up on their offer.

The most popular offerings?

"The girls like the cardio," says Dyer, meaning treadmills, elliptical trainers and such. "The boys like weightlifting over cardio." Group exercise classes are also popular, says Dyer, including the music-driven Body Jam and Body Pump, the latter of which he describes as "hip-hop exercise."

The YMCAs in the Raleigh, N.C., area still offer traditional kids programs -- soccer, dodge ball, basketball. But they've also begun courting kids with traditional adult exercises. Especially popular at the Banks D. Kerr YMCA in North Raleigh has been an orientation class that middle-schoolers must attend before using the facility's weight machines.

"We were completely booked through the last week of May," wellness director Jaime Kivett said of the class, which was offered three times a week but is now offered five times.

Even younger kids are emulating the exercise of their parents.

"We have a kids yoga class -- for ages 5 to 9 -- that is packed," said Kivett. "There's 40 or more kids in that class." This fall, Kivett says they plan to start offering a Kid Fit class that will involve "balance, body movement, push-ups -- things like that."

Things that kids 20 years ago wouldn't have thought to do.


So why are kids thinking to do it now?

"I honestly think it has a lot to do with parents' schedules being so busy," says the Y's Kivett. "Everyone's always on the go." So you take your kid with you when you go to work out.

There's also a growing paranoia of letting kids do the things they did 20 years ago.

"These days, we parents have a very real concern for our kids' safety that our parents did not have to deal with so much," says Jeff Wooten, president of Raleigh-based The Body Mechanic. TBM "uses holistic techniques which are callisthenic in nature" in its classes.

"We see on the news all the time how kids are abducted from their neighborhood streets," says Wooten, who offers kids' versions of his classes. "So we make sure that our children have limited outside play time alone."

The nation's childhood obesity epidemic -- about a third of U.S. kids are deemed overweight -- seems to be a motivator as well.

The Wakefield, N.C., Y currently has eight kids referred from WakeMed's Energize! program, which targets kids ages 6 to 18 at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Andrew MacLeod, who manages Lifestyle Family Fitness's Cary facility, believes kids who may be a little overweight and self-conscious about working out around other kids prefer the gym experience.

And it's not just parents who are short on time these days.

Siebach, a 17-year-old junior at Middle Creek High School in Apex, N.C., not only has school to contend with, she works two part-time jobs and has cheerleading duties. Still, she hates to miss her workout.

"I can tell when I don't get to the gym for a few days," she says.


It's hard to argue the value of kids exercising.

"The cost of inactivity with our kids and young adults," says Duggan, the Orlando foot and ankle surgeon, "is a major part of medical care in this country."

But it's important that still-developing youths not damage themselves in the process.

"It's important not to stress the growth, or epiphyseal plates," says Duggan. Those would be the points at which bone growth continues to occur.

For instance, excessive pounding on young knees -- from a high-impact aerobics class, say -- can cause a condition called Osgood-Schlatter disease, an inflammation of the bone at the growth plate about two inches below the kneecap. Heel inflammation can occur with exercises that require lots of squatting, running, or jumping.

That's why most programs aimed at kids require that they go through an orientation program first.

Also be wary of exercise machines that focus on a specific muscle.

"The very nature of this equipment is to isolate a body part, usually at the expense of opposing muscles," says Wooten, of The Body Mechanic. "This is not good for kids or adults, since our bodies were designed to work synergistically as a unit."

Thus, for strength and toning exercises, Duggan recommends activities that rely on body weight. Like push-ups.

Perhaps the best bit of advice for this new generation of kids heading to the gym is the same as for their parents.

"In many cases with young kids you won't see physical body changes for three to six months," says Duggan. Your bodies have a lot going on, he adds, and it can take a while for the efforts of working out to distinguish themselves from a still-growing body.

In short: Be patient.