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Using the TV to get kids moving

Usually the only exercise kids get in front of the TV is extending their thumbs to switch channels and play video games — or lifting their arms from the snack bowl to their mouths. But some TV and video producers are working to change that.
KID FITNESS JACK AND ELAINE LALANNE
Jack LaLanne, the 91-year old icon of fitness, makes a special guest appearance with his wife, Elaine, on "Kid Fitness," public television's new fitness series for children.PRNewsFoto via Newscom

Usually the only exercise kids get in front of the TV is moving their thumbs to switch channels or play video games — or lifting their arms from the snack bowl to their mouths.

But some TV and video producers are working to change that. In September, a new children's show called "Kid Fitness" began airing on PBS stations across the country. And a handful of DVDs also are available to get kids moving, even a line called athleticBaby for the littlest tykes.

The producers are well aware of the irony. The couch — and the TV — are constantly implicated in the nation's growing childhood obesity epidemic. In 1980, 7 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were overweight, compared with 16 percent in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The issue isn't just cosmetic. It's estimated that nearly two-thirds of overweight kids have at least one additional risk factor for heart disease, such as elevated cholesterol or blood pressure. Overweight kids also are at increased risk for sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, social stigmatization and low self-esteem.

But Paul Neville, an exercise trainer in East Islip, N.Y., and creator of "Kid Fitness," says it's "not realistic" to try to shut most kids off from television. While "outside exercise is great," he says, there are plenty of times when kids are stuck inside and inevitably they will end up watching the tube.

So his philosophy is to give them a show that'll do them some good. "If you're going to have the kids watch TV, at least have them watching TV where they'll get something out of it," he says.

Superheroes of fitness
"Kid Fitness," aimed at youngsters ages 2 to 8, is an interactive half-hour show featuring characters such as the show's superhero star, "Kid Fitness," and "Brenda the Butterfly" who demonstrate various movements to the tune of children's music. Viewers are encouraged to join in.

Nickelodeon has gotten into the fitness act with the popular “LazyTown,” a surreal comedy featuring a character named “Sportacus” who tries to get children to exercise and eat right.

Even the federal government uses videos to help combat child obesity. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services worked with Discovery Networks to produce "Max's Magical Delivery: Fit For Kids," a DVD for kids ages 5 to 9 that teaches them about healthy eating and exercise. Parents can get it for free at www.ahrq.gov/child.

Various yoga videos are available now for kids, and athleticBaby has a series of DVDs that introduce very young children — even infants — to sports and play. Sometimes the kids are encouraged to participate and other times they are just shown various sports equipment and how kids use it.

"Because our target audience is so young, an instructional video may be just a little too much," says athleticBaby founder and CEO Karen Foster, who is based in Dallas. "Our focus is to inspire them through imagery of other kids in energetic play."

Video games can be another TV-based tool for getting kids moving. Dance Dance Revolution, the popular arcade game where kids jump forward and back as the floor lights up, is also available for most video game systems, including Xbox and Playstation.

'Desperate times'
Though experts on youth and fitness often decry how much television American kids watch, they aren't opposed to this new trend.

"Given the sad state of affairs of the activity habits of our young people, desperate times call for desperate measures," says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. "We've got to pull out all stops to get young people more active."

Dr. Eric Small, a pediatric sports medicine physician in New York City and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on sports medicine, agrees. "I don't see any downside," he says.

But exercising in front of the TV should just be one portion of a child's overall daily activity, he emphasizes. "If that's the only activity they're going to do, that's not a good thing," he says.

Ideally, Small says, young children should get one hour of unstructured play plus one hour of adult-directed activity (including running, jumping, dancing, skipping, etc.) from a parent or caregiver.

Ever heard of hopscotch?
Unfortunately, says Bryant, in the age of highly competitive youth sports, many kids don't know how to play on their own, and games like tag, hopscotch and capture the flag are too often forgotten.

Dr. Tanya Remer Altmann, a pediatrician in Westlake Village, Calif., says she'd prefer that kids exercise away from the television.

Young children, in particular, shouldn't spend too much time in front of the TV, she says, noting that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under age 2 avoid the tube altogether. For older children, the group advises no more than one to two hours of TV a day.

"In general, I'd much rather have the kids exercising outside rather than in front of the TV," Altmann says.

Still, she adds, "anything that encourages them to get up and exercise is a good thing."