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US Toddlers Get Jumpstart on Fitness

As child obesity grows in US, activity programs for the very young are also on the rise

Catherine Byrne and her daughter Bridget, 3, attend a mobile gym class at an elementary school gymnasium in the Washington suburbs.
Catherine Byrne and her daughter Bridget, 3, attend a mobile gym class at an elementary school gymnasium in the Washington suburbs.
June Soh

As she throws a ball through a hoop in her weekly fitness class, Bridget might not know she is getting a workout. But her mother, Catherine Byrne, does. She wants her three-year-old to get an early start on staying fit.

“Because I did not. I want her to be fit her whole life," she says. "I want it to be part of her everyday life and not something that she has to catch up later.”

Childhood obesity in America has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to government statistics, and today nearly one in three youngsters are overweight or obese. As parents grow concerned, fitness programs for babies and toddlers are on the rise. These programs try to foster a lifetime love of fitness by making exercise fun.

Bridget's class, held at an elementary school gymnasium in the Washington suburbs, is called FunFit. It's a mobile gym that caters to children ages one to 13.

Celia Kibler, the co-founder of FunFit, says it provides an opportunity for children to be physically active and have fun in a safe environment.

“We utilize the recreation departments, schools, daycares, childcare centers to really reach out to the population of kids, as many kids and parents as possible," she says. "We like to incorporate families together so that everybody learns to exercise together.”

Experts say the lack of physical activity is one of the major contributors to the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States. Young Americans - ages eight to 18 - spend more than seven and a half hours a day with entertainment media such as television, video games, computers or other electronic devices, according to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit focusing on major health care issues.

Jeff Young doesn't want his daughter Evelyn, now 22 months old, to end up like that, so he brings her to the class.

“I think this program will absolutely help keep her active and help get her out of in front of a screen of some sort, be it a TV or computer or iPhones now, you have screens all over the place.”

Kibler says FunFit offers programs in more locations each year, but still has a waiting list. My Gym, a children's fitness center, is also expanding. There are 150 locations in the U.S. and about 60 in 25 other countries.

My Gym, a children’s fitness center, has 150 locations in the U.S. and about 60 in 25 other countries.
My Gym, a children’s fitness center, has 150 locations in the U.S. and about 60 in 25 other countries.

“Our gym in Potomac has been in existence for about 11 years, and we opened up this gym about eight months ago in Bethesda," says Mandy Lemar, who owns two My Gym franchises outside Washington. "There is definitely demand in this area for this type of program.”

The program is designed to help children learn other skills, too.

“The children are working on their socialization skills, their team work, their listening skills," says Lemar. "There are so many different things they are learning here at the same time that they are using their bodies and having fun working out.”

Combining age-appropriate exercise with fun activities can be remarkably beneficial to children, according to Karen McDonnell, a public health professor at George Washington University.

“As long as the places are safe and they are fun, and there is a trained facilitator who can help work with parents and children," she says, "then it can provide great benefit to the developing child, physically, cognitively, socially.”

The parents of these little exercisers say they hope these first steps will lead to a lifetime of physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle.

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