updated 7/17/2007 9:49:42 AM ET 2007-07-17T13:49:42

Stephen Wallace hopped off an elliptical machine and got a pep talk from his personal trainer about his bench-press goals. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he described how social commitments impede his every-other-day workout regime.

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But Wallace isn't a busy professional squeezing in lunchtime workouts; he's a skinny 16-year-old with braces and a backward baseball cap.

Welcome to Overtime Fitness Inc., one of the nation's only private gyms for teens.

"At other gyms no one would sit down and teach me how to use the weights or the machines," said Wallace, a junior at Palo Alto High School. "Here, you get a lot of personal attention and that gives you motivation."

Wallace's mom pays the $59 monthly fee at Overtime, a Mountain View gym with about 100 teen members and ambitious plans for regional and even national franchises.

It's a mix of conventional training equipment — treadmills, free weights, yoga mats — and kid-friendly features like a rock-climbing wall and cheerleading conditioning sessions. Experts offer nutritional counseling and academic tutoring.

Personal trainers give one-on-one lessons, while "floor trainers" roam at high-traffic hours to make sure kids are using the equipment properly. Classes include sparring, spinning, cardio boxing and the popular "Butts and Guts," led by a 26-year-old Stanford University alum who's also a 6-foot-6 professional volleyball player.

Video game motivation
The 12,000-square-foot facility, which used to be a privately owned virtual reality flight simulation center, takes inspiration from its Silicon Valley surroundings. An arcade features video games requiring kids to box, dance and jump. Riders race against each other on stationary bikes networked to a server.

Although fitness enthusiasts applaud the company's effort to reduce the rising incidence of teen obesity, public policy experts say its very existence is a byproduct of school budget cuts that have led to a reduction in physical education and after-school sports programs.

Others question Overtime's use of video games — a tactic that won't necessarily compel kids to keep exercising as they grow up.

Investors and employees — including founder Patrick Ferrell, who launched GamePro Magazine and helped establish the video game conference E3 — say high-tech toys lure some teens, but personal trainers and an emphasis on nutrition and fitness encourage lifetime health management. The gym also provides an alternative to dark playgrounds, unsupervised basements and fast-food binges.

"What are our teenagers doing when they're idle? They eat, they go to Starbucks, they sit around at the mall and they have corresponding health problems," said CEO Laura Tauscher, a toned mother of two teenagers. "We're not trying to create gym rats — we're trying to give kids the tools and intelligence to keep their health in mind."

More Curves gyms than McDonald's
It's unlikely Overtime will catch on as Woodway, Texas-based Curves International Inc. did with women 35 and older. Curves, which debuted in 1992, became the largest fitness franchise in the world, with 10,000 locations in 42 countries. There are about 1.5 Curves for every two McDonald's in the United States.

Overtime opened last September and still hasn't turned a profit. Although it was founded exclusively for teenagers, in January it opened to women from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. It will open to men this week and expand overall hours.

Overtime faces mounting competition from established chains, which are experimenting with ways to get kids to become lifetime members. San Ramon-based 24 Hour Fitness just started "Hoopology," a summer basketball pilot program in the San Francisco Bay area for boys and girls ages 8-17.

"The sooner kids start cultivating healthy habits and staying fit, the more likely they are to be active and healthy for the rest of their lives," said Carl Liebert, CEO of 24 Hour Fitness, which has more than 3 million members in 16 states.

Too costly for some teens
Like other private gyms, Overtime caters to teens in tony suburbs. To combat that, managers are considering asking Mountain View-based Google Inc. and other local businesses to fund scholarships, and it's waving the $109 initiation fee this summer.

The gym also hopes to reduce teens' monthly fee as it gets more revenue from adults. Currently, day passes are $10 — the price of two large Starbucks shakes — or five for $40.

That opens Overtime to criticism from people who say it fails to reach the low-income teens who are at highest risk of obesity, diabetes, asthma and other health problems.

"Fitness is more akin to a public good, especially for kids," said Ann Cotten, director of the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore. "I worry that the kids that get access to this gym are the same ones on private soccer leagues."

Ximena Urrutia-Rojas, an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the University of North Texas, said emphasizing teen health is good, but is no substitute for an active lifestyle that involves the whole family.

"Even teenagers who say they want to separate from parents feel motivated when parents or other adults initiate the activity," she said.

Sarah Barlow, associated professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University, praised Overtime's novel approach.

"Even for adults, the treadmill and stationary bike don't sustain interest over time," Barlow said. "I like the idea of taking video games, which are so successful at engaging kids, and modifying them to get kids engaged in physical activity — now that's fun."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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