Kids have fun getting fit

By Amy Moritz

Jillian Huber watched as her son, Jeffrey, ran down the inflatable track and sprinted over to the bounce house. The 2½-year-old was filled with toddler energy and he was using every morsel of it. Some days, when Huber is mentally debating whether to get up and go to the gym for her workout, Jeffrey is pestering her with the question: “Are we going to the gym today?”

Yes, her son has become one of the key motivators in Huber’s workout routine. She joined Fitness 360 in North Buffalo, N.Y., and when the facility opened up its kids’ only Jungle Gym, it became perfect for the Hubers. She could introduce her son and her 7-year-old daughter Anna to a healthy, active lifestyle while she worked on her own pieces of a healthy, active lifestyle.

In North Tonawanda, a similar scene plays out at CrossFit 716 where Holly Simons watches her 5-year-old son Luke perform tuck-ups and burpees (squats) in a kids-only class. Simons had started taking classes at the gym and loved the workout, the philosophy, and the family atmosphere. When they added a kids’ class, she was eager to sign up her son, who loves the workouts so much he does burpees at home for fun.

The reasons both women involved their children in their typically adult gym are fairly standard – they wanted to share something active as a family and find different ways to teach their children lifelong healthy habits. They are well aware of the phrase “childhood obesity epidemic” and are looking for ways to help keep their kids on the other side of that equation.

While research continues to demonstrate the increasing problems created by childhood obesity and the public’s awareness on the topic increases, traditional sources of physical activity and health education are decreasing. And that’s where the private sector has stepped in to help fill the increasing demand for children’s health programming.

No one debates that children should be active, but research increasingly suggests they aren’t. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that obesity prevalence in children and teenagers has nearly tripled since 1980 with about 17 percent of 2- to 19-year-olds considered obese. Locally when you combine obesity and overweight statistics, the picture looks even worse.

In Erie County, 27.7 percent of all students qualify as obese or overweight. In Niagara County, it’s 33.6 percent. Wyoming leads the eight counties of Western New York at 34.6 percent.

Disease and lifestyle

The health effects of carrying significant extra weight are well-documented and as more and more children are dealing with serious weight issues, the discussion about disease has even changed.

“We’ve seen more kids diagnosed with type 2 diabetes,” said Dr. Karl Kozlowski, assistant professor of kinesiology at Canisius College. “We used to call that ‘adult onset diabetes’ because it largely happened later in life and as a result of diet and exercise factors. We’re seeing the impact of those lifestyle factors in 12-year-olds now.

“Children are dealing with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Those are health issues we typically see in adults and seeing them now routinely in children is alarming.”

Research linking childhood obesity to a range of health problems, from type 2 diabetes to asthma, has been well-documented along with one of the causes of those problems – lack of physical activity.

But the research also shows other benefits of physical activity and a healthy weight for children when it comes to the classroom. In studies, after bouts of physical activity, children perform better in an academic assessment. That means a body of research is starting to back up what exercise enthusiasts have believed for decades – that academic performance can be enhanced through physical activity.

Traditionally, the thinking has been that kids would get much of their activity during physical education class and recess at school. But the amount of time kids spend in structured physical education has decreased over the years.

Daily physical education is considered the gold standard, but few schools meet those needs. In a national survey from CDC, only about 52 percent of students attended a physical education class weekly and only 31.5 percent had daily class.

So opportunities to learn about, and practice, a healthy, active lifestyle are declining in school while the adverse health effects of obesity are increasing in children. While nonprofits and grants help to counterbalance those cuts, this is the time in economic models when the private sector steps in.

“This is where you get into the marketplace,” said Phil Habestro, founder and CEO of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo and WNY who has worked in the private and nonprofit sector. “With cutbacks to programs, cutbacks to physical education and health education programs, you end up with the marketplace picking up the slack and increasing efforts to keep children healthy.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm, the marketplace looks for issues and opportunities to address. And many of them already have the space, they’re just finding new ways to optimize their space, time and profit.”

The private sector has discovered not just a new marketing opportunity that makes good business sense but a chance to feel part of the solution to creating a healthy community and future consumers.

One of the newer demands of parents for their children is turning away from the traditional youth sports model and looking for different ways to teach lifelong fitness habits.

Take the parent who wanted his child to try CrossFit because he succeeded at every other sport he played. He told Jenn Lesniak, owner and coach of CrossFit 716, that he “wanted him to get used to losing because he’s really good at everything.”

CrossFit is defined as constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement with workouts that are always changing so the body never has a chance to adapt. Because the workout challenges individuals where they are at in their fitness level, each person has the opportunity to work to their maximum effort and capacity, basically competing against themselves.

“When you do CrossFit, that’s the thing: Even if you’re the best, you lose to yourself,” Lesniak said. “Cross Fit is the only avenue where the loudest cheers are for the person who’s last, not for the person who’s first. That’s a huge thing. They’re not cheering for the first person who’s done. It was easy for them. They’re cheering for the person who is really, really laying it out there.”

In North Buffalo, Glenn Kaifas took some open space and created a kid-friendly workout zone called Jungle Gym complete with bounce houses, a foam pit, climbing wall, and zip line.

Kaifas developed Jungle Gym when he realized that there was no place to take his children for an active afternoon on a bad weather day in Buffalo. As a fitness professional, he has seen clients come to him in their 40s suffering from health problems which could have been eased, or even avoided, if he was able to work with them 10 or 20 years earlier. Why not try to target an even younger population to be part of the solution?

Jungle Gym at Fitness 360 has both structured age-group classes and open gym times available to gym members and on a drop-in basis. This isn’t your typical baby-sitting service while mom or dad get their workout in. This is a way for children to get their introduction to fitness and feed into the family’s healthy lifestyle.

“We want to send a message that fitness is fun. That it’s important to take care of yourself,” Kaifas said. “It’s not vegetables are yucky and exercise is hard. Exercise can be fun. That’s one of our main missions to keep adults motivated, so it’s going to be the same thing for kids. To send that message that ‘look, we just had a blast and it was good for you.’ ”

The importance of nutrition

And it’s not just gyms expanding their demographics that are getting in on the ground floor of building a healthy consumer base. The other piece of a healthy lifestyle is nutrition.

Supermarkets, including Wegmans and Tops, are educating children about healthy food choices.

“All of us who work at Wegmans have families and we all want to be active and healthy,” said Theresa Jackson, consumer affairs manager for Wegmans who also is a registered dietitian. “We’re part of the community and we want to see our communities thrive. Healthy eating is part of that.”

Wegmans offers a range of programs, including in-store “Cooking with Kids” classes based around getting kids to try new foods and make healthy choices. Wegmans also offers “Eat Well, Live Well” fourth-grade tours where students tour the store and learn about eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables.

“We have kids come to a store on a field trip and then go home and they’ll talk to their families about what they learned,” Jackson said. “We’ve had parents call us up and ask us what jicama is and where they can get it because their child tried it on a field trip to Wegmans and can’t stop asking for it. So we sometimes have kids teaching their parents and being the driving factor to getting their families to eat healthy.”

“Family” and “community” seem to be the key factors when determining success in maintaining a healthy weight.

In his 30 years of researching obesity, Dr. Leonard H. Epstein has seen the best results come from involving the entire family.

“One of the most important things we’ve learned in maintaining weight loss is to treat it as a family problem,” said Epstein, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics at the University at Buffalo. “Very often if you have the pediatrician treating an obese child, they look at how to treat the child. If you have an obese parent, they go to their doctor who puts them on a program for their weight loss. But if you treat the parent and child together, treat the entire family, then we see more success in maintaining weight loss.”

All of Epstein’s research is family based, including the newest study (which is currently recruiting family participants) to test the idea that food variety is one cause of obesity.

In three decades of work in the field, Epstein has seen some important changes in the culture of researching, treating and talking about obesity.

“Obesity is seen now more as a public health issue versus some weakness of self control,” he said.

The research and public policy initiatives help shape the health culture for the community. But it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And for families like the Hubers, finding a local business to support their endeavors becomes another link of positive reinforcement.

“I already belonged to the gym,” Jillian Huber said. “When I saw they were building the Jungle Gym, I thought it’d give the kids a chance to try some different things. They love it. And it helps us. We’re trying to make this our lifestyle.”

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