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As gym classes dwindle, how can kids keep fit?

So what’s a parent to do to make sure their children get the exercise they need?
Aerobic kids
Kids are the second fastest growing segment of gym-goers. But boring treadmills won't do. Instead, aerobics classes with a fun factor are usually the main attraction.Ariel Skelley / Corbis file

With schools cutting back on physical education classes — and some eliminating them altogether — the prospects for getting exercise during the day aren’t great for many kids heading back to school this fall.

So what’s a parent to do to make sure their children get the exercise they need?

For starters, don’t rely too much on gym class, experts say. While some schools are updating PE to include in-line skating, elliptical trainers, wall climbing and other popular activities, more schools are reducing or stopping their PE programs.

“Unfortunately, physical education is one of the first things that gets cut when there’s a budget crunch,” says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.

And even when gym class is offered regularly, it’s almost never enough to meet the new federal guidelines that children get at least an hour of physical activity on most days of the week.

Only 8 percent of elementary schools, for example, and about 6 percent of middle schools and high schools offer daily physical education classes, according to the National Education Association. For kids not involved in after-school sports, this could spell a very sedentary day.

Meanwhile, the rate of obesity among youth is escalating. Among children ages 6 to 11, 16 percent were overweight in 2002, compared with 7 percent in 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among kids 12 to 19, 16 percent were overweight in 2002, three times more than in 1980.

Even at young ages, obesity is not just a cosmetic issue. Almost two-thirds of overweight youth have at least one additional risk factor for heart disease, including high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Overweight kids also may suffer with sleep apnea or bone and joint problems, according to the CDC.

It starts at home
Bryant says parents must take charge to make sure their kids lead an active lifestyle. “It really has to start at home with the parents serving as good role models,” he says.

Couch-potato parents obviously shouldn't expect to have fitness-fanatic kids. Parents who lead an active lifestyle will help instill that behavior in their children. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator or going for evening walks are habits that children can adopt early.

Bryant recommends parents spend time each day engaging in age-appropriate physical activities with their kids, such as tag, hopscotch, various sports, bike riding or Frisbee at the park.

And just as some kids are rewarded with some TV or Nintendo time for doing their homework, the same strategy could be applied to exercise, Bryant says.

"We should pay just as much attention to the physical side of things," he says.

More clubs catering to kids
Increasingly, parents are also working out with their children at gyms that accommodate kids, says Brooke MacInnis Correia, a spokesperson for the Boston-based International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), an industry group that represents 4,000 health clubs in the United States.

YMCA's have long offered programming for kids. And IHRSA survey data found that a quarter of its member clubs offered children’s activities in 2002, including aerobics and kid-tailored personal training. Correia says she expects that number to continue to climb as the number of gym members under age 18 grows.

Kids are the second fastest growing population of gym members, she says. IHRSA data show there were 4.6 million gym members under age 18 last year, up from the 3.6 million youth members in 1999 and up from the 2 million in 1993. Of the youth members in 2004, 1.8 million were ages 6 to 11, and 2.8 million were 12 to 17.

Gold’s Gym is one chain that now offers programs for kids at some of its locations. One, Junior Jumpers, a gymnastics and tumbling program, is available in clubs in Austin, Texas. Another offering, Sport Aerobics Program, combines dance, gymnastics and aerobics, and is available at some clubs in Virginia, North Carolina, California and Florida.

Lori Lowell, national group fitness director for Gold’s, says the Sport Aerobics Program is popular with kids because there's competition at the end of class.

"Kids need to work toward a goal,” Lowell says, rather than just being asked to hit the treadmill, for instance.

Gold's has also started its Student Scholarship Program for high school seniors in Virginia. Kids with a grade point average of 2.5 or higher get a free six-month membership. During that time, they must go to the gym three times a week for 45 minutes each time. At the end of six months, they write an essay on health and fitness and are then eligible for a $2,000 college scholarship.

Lowell says kids who are active may become sedentary when they transition to college because they often drop sports and other activities at home.

Speak up
And while physical education is declining in many schools, concerned parents shouldn't give up without a fight, says Jerald Newberry, executive director of the National Education Association's health and safety division in Washington, D.C.

"Parents really underestimate their ability to influence positive change," he says.

If funds aren't available for full-fledged PE, teachers might be able to incorporate short bouts of physical activity into the classroom, Newberry says. For example, teachers could implement an activity where kids run from one side of the room to the other as they finish math problems on the board, or they engage in jumping or dancing as part of other lesson plans.

Such tactics were applied in the D.C. area during the 2002 sniper killings when schools were under lockdown, he says. The goal was to help the kids avoid feeling so pent-up and sluggish.

"Learning occurs best in a balanced situation," Newberry says.

Smart Fitness now appears every other Tuesday.