HEALTH

JUNIOR GYMS

How do you get kids to exercise? Give them some laughs.

CATHY GULLI April 10 2006
HEALTH

JUNIOR GYMS

How do you get kids to exercise? Give them some laughs.

CATHY GULLI April 10 2006

JUNIOR GYMS

HEALTH

How do you get kids to exercise? Give them some laughs.

CATHY GULLI

When Victoria Quon became worried about her seven-year-old son’s sedentary lifestyle since discovering video games, she came up with an unlikely solution to get him moving: she started a gym for children. Synergy Interactive Fitness Club in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is one of a growing number of exercise centres in Canada and the U.S. catering to kids. These aren’t typical health clubs, though. At Synergy, for instance, stationary bikes are hooked up to video consoles. The faster her son peddles and manoeuvres the handlebars, the better his game—and workout. “It’s like a fitness arcade,” says Quon, 38.

No kidding. Other equipment includes a 62-inch TV and two dance pads, which challenge children to follow increasingly complex footwork on the screen. And then there’s Makoto, which looks like a triangular boxing ring. The three posts spontaneously light up and make noises, and kids must hit the active spot with an exercise ball or martial arts stick. Quon, an M.B.A. who has also studied life sciences and worked at her husband’s medical practice, says games like these “keep kids motivated, and they don’t realize they’re doing exercise.

They just think it’s fun.”

This fitness-made-fun approach is the latest attempt at tackling the rising incidence of obesity and other health conditions, including diabetes and heart problems, among children. In the United States, where it’s estimated that 30 per cent of kids are overweight or nearly so, exercise centres such as My Gym and The Little Gym offer classes ranging from crawling to climbing to tumbling, for infants as young as three months to preteens. (Synergy exclusively serves children aged seven to 12 every day after school.) In Canada, 26 per cent of children and youth are overweight or obeseup 70 per cent since the late 1970s, reports

StatsCan. “Kids are not active enough,” says Dr. Claire LeBlanc, chair of the healthy active living committee at the Canadian Paediatric Society. The medical community advises that children spend at least 60 minutes doing moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. But that’s not happening.

There are many reasons why, and technohobbies such as computer and video games are among them. But that’s not all. Some kids lack coordination or confidence, and fear being teased by those more athletic and skilled. Plus, parental safety concerns and busy schedules mean that few children walk long distances as a means of transportation anymore. And where physical education used to be a primary part of school, most teachers have had to cut down those programs in place of academic priorities. Last but not least, of course, is the fact that kids aren’t concerned with fitness so much as they are with fun.

That’s why gyms like Synergy may be the best opportunity yet for them to get healthy— and have a good time. “If there was a place for children and youth to go to socialize, and to do a variety of physical activities that are fun and encourage participation by everyone, that would be extremely helpful,” says LeBlanc.

With this in mind, Quon has set up a range of programs, including some for teenage girls (who tend to be most self-conscious), disabled children, and athletic teams. She’s also planning to have a psychologist help youth develop a healthy body image. “If children get exercise integrated into their daily routine early on,” says Quon, “it will last a lifetime.” In fact, all those grown-ups who don’t enjoy exercise today may like it better if they had started going as kids, muses Quon. Synergy also serves adults. Turns out the dance pads, game bikes and Makoto are the favourite equipment of that clientele, too. M

IT’S THE LATEST ATTEMPT TO TACKLE SUCH PROBLEMS AS OBESITY AMONG CHILDREN