Fit kids hop to become junior gym bunnies

Kids as young as five are joining gyms such as Les Mills in a bid to battle the bulge.

While experts say the programmes could help combat childhood obesity, others were concerned starting formal exercise so young could lead to poor body image and eating disorders.

Les Mills in Christchurch has started a new "kids' fitness" programme involving one-hour classes tailored for groups of five to eight-year-olds and nine to 12-year-olds.

Les Mills' Joshua Dickson said the purpose of the classes was to "offer a platform for developing young Kiwis' confidence, fitness, and to show the next generation that exercise isn't limited to crunches, high-performing athletes, or sweating on treadmills".

The nine to 12-year-olds engage in aerobic exercise through dance, martial arts, jumps, and games - as well as core strength tasks and even yoga; while the five to eight-year-olds "achieve similar things but on an age-appropriate level", Dickson said.

The classes would also help combat New Zealand's growing childhood obesity, Dickson said.

"Anything that challenges kids' fitness, the perception of fitness, or simply makes exercise fun will work towards this growing trend."

The Franks Brothers Gym in Sydenham, run by All Blacks Ben and Owen Franks, offers a Crossfit training programme for children aged 10-16.

The programme, which includes light weight training, is "designed to increase speed, stamina, power, strength, agility, balance, co-ordination, accuracy and flexibility".

"Conducted sensibly it is safe for children to do body weight movements and light weight training," the brothers' website says.

While health experts highlight the need for children to get enough exercise, others were worried about the psychological aspects of gym routines for children.

University of Otago researcher Dr Lisette Burrows, who was also president of Physical Education New Zealand, did not believe children should be in "regimented" training.

"We want to develop a lifelong desire to engage in activity whatever your body shape. We don't think young people need to associate fitness with the gym or with the ideal body type. They can get their exercise through exploring and having fun."

Christchurch associate professor of sport and exercise physiology Nick Draper said while all exercise helped combat a "growing problem" of obesity, young children did not necessarily need a formal routine.

"Unless there is a specific reason an individual young person needs to be in the gym, then most young children, such as five to 10-year-olds, can just be out having fun and experiencing a whole range of activities.

"You need to be careful with young children as they're growing up that you don't push them too hard or in the wrong ways."

Burrows said parents and coaches also had to be conscious of the potential for eating disorders.

"Research shows that children have very strong ideas about body types and so called ‘fat' and ‘skinny' people. Young people don't need to become obsessive about their shape or fitness level." She believed the gym was a negative environment for children.

"People need to be aware that children, even young ones, are very aware of what's going on around them and concepts of bodies and fitness. There are a lot of people in gyms who parade the ‘perfect' body and that isn't necessarily what we want our children to grow up around."

Draper agreed parents needed to be wary of not creating too much emphasis on body image.

"There's a difference between being fit and healthy and becoming too concerned about bodies. It needs to be a balance of the physical and social benefits of exercise with education about positive body image."

Professor of psychology Lucy Johnston said making exercise fun, rather than a chore, was key. "The most important thing is enjoyment - it will best predict whether involvement in exercise persists across the lifespan."

Sunday Star Times