June 30, 2009

Aquarium Center Uses Seals To Teach Obese Kids About Fitness

A new exhibit at the New England Aquarium aims to entice an increasingly obese generation of kids into getting in shape, The Associated Press reported.

The "Move It!" program at the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center, which opens Wednesday, uses the athleticism of seals as an example for children.

Tony LaCasse, an aquarium spokesman, said those marine animals will do things that are jaw-dropping at times and they wanted kids to be inspired by them.

The $10 million center, built at the back of the aquarium on Boston Harbor, allows the seals to dart around in an open-air space.

The seals, which typically live in the Pacific Ocean from Southern California to Japan, and north to the Bering Sea, are considered depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, mostly due to hunting.

The seal's charisma, plus its story as a hunted and scarce animal, made it a good choice for a marine mammal center that seeks to help people relate to ocean life, according to Kathy Streeter, the aquarium's marine mammals curator.

"They help give people a perspective on how the ocean affects everybody," she said.

However, things weren't always so great at the New England Aquarium.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums pulled its accreditation in 2003 after financial struggles and layoffs followed two major expansions in the late 1990s.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 32 percent of American kids ages 2 to 19 are overweight, including 17 percent who are obese, and the new center's childhood fitness push is an effort to restore the aquariums return to prominence while helping children improve their health.

The aquarium will show the seals as they stretch, jump and swim, while explaining the ways the moves are similar to humans. 

The seals will perform stretches and moves with trainers, and some kids will even be allowed into the shallow end of the seals' swimming area to exercise along with them.

Other institutions have pushed programs that get kids engaged outdoors, but tying seal moves to kid fitness is unique and innovative, according to Paul Boyle, an environmental biologist and a vice president at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

He added that the center has a strong draw in the sleek, engaging fur seals "” though attendance will ultimately be a measure of just how strong.

However, Boyle welcomed the challenge of figuring out whether the seals can inspire fitness.

"You can almost see a child in front of the exhibit, gyrating, trying to mimic the seal and saying, 'Well this is pretty cool,'" he said.

"Then they go home and they may roll around in the backyard and then they may start to, you know ... run."


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