vertical ruler lazytown newsroom vertical ruler  

close window

Gyms cash in on parents' fears for unfit kids

As youth obesity and heart disease rates rise, families pay up to enrol in special health clubs

Denis Campbell

Sunday June 10, 2001

They are in for a shock. British schoolchildren, reared on a modern diet of junk food, video games and non-stop television are being ordered into the gym by parents fed up with their increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

Worried about growing levels of obesity and earlier appearance of heart disease, thousands of parents are enrolling their offspring in new gyms specially equipped with exercise machines and weights designed for children.

Almost a third of all British children are overweight or obese. Health experts have blamed the astonishing rise on the decline of physical education classes in schools and the preference among children for computer games over outdoor activities.

One chain of health clubs has signed up 4,500 child recruits aged between seven and 14 in the last 18 months. A spokesman for Next Generation, which has six clubs in England and Scotland, said last week that parents were willing to fund the £12 monthly memberships if it encouraged their children to adopt healthy habits.

At each Next Generation club, the separate gyms for children look the same as those for adults. Instead, though, the dumb-bells start at just half a kilogramme (1.1lb) while the shoulder presses and rowing machines are only three-quarters of the usual size.

Some of the children weigh more than they should. Others are motivated by vanity; some teenagers hope to get a six-pack stomach or well-honed pecs, while some are doing it just to keep their parents happy. 'There's no reason why children as young as seven shouldn't try to lead a healthy lifestyle just like their parents, and that's what we provide,' said Malcolm McPhail, Next Generation's health and fitness manager.

'It can have all sorts of physical and psychological benefits. For example, it can help young people deal with being bullied at school. It also gets young people off the street and creates a positive sub-culture like dance or gymnastics rather than drink and drugs.'

Debbie Garrett and Chris Jowsey, from Edinburgh, and their children Jack, seven, and Rosie, four, spend two hours together every Sunday in the gym or swimming pool at a club in the city. 'It's great that the whole family can go and each pursue our own individual fitness interest,' said Garrett, a human resources manager in the NHS. 'The kids swim or use the soft play area rather than use any machines, even sized-down ones, because at their age fitness should be fun and not about solitary, repetitive exercises.'

Next Generation is the only gym operator offering specialist equipment for children, but several other high street fitness chains and local authorities are talking to suppliers Kidco Fitness about installing similar facilities.

Later this year former PE teacher Andy Baker will launch the first chain of gyms catering solely for young people. Called Children First Clubs, they will include children's gyms, but also spas and even health and beauty areas for under-16s. Thirty clubs are planned and parents will pay up to £65 per month for their child to attend.

'All 1,800 places in our first club, in central London, will be sold within a few months of opening,' said Baker. 'And I reckon tens of thousands of other parents are prepared to pay for something that takes their children's health and lifestyle seriously.

'We'll have every leisure activity together under one roof - an internet cafe, television room, and climbing mountain - so they won't have to act any longer as taxi drivers taking their son or daughter from soccer training to dance class to homework club.'

Not everyone is happy, though. John Matthews, chief executive of the UK Physical Education Association, said no child under 14 should be doing any resistance training, with weights-based machines, of the sort offered at Next Generation clubs. 'To be doing strength training at seven is ridiculous. That could involve anatomical risks because children's bones haven't matured until their late teens.'

At the David Lloyd Club in West Bridgford, Nottingham, seven- to 15-year-olds take part in the endurance sport of triathlon - albeit running, swimming and cycling much shorter distances than Olympic triathletes - and the intense cycling exercise called spinning.

But nobody under 16 is allowed to do any weight training in case they injure themselves. Professor Neil Armstrong, director of the children's health and exercise research centre at Exeter University, said: 'The increasing lack of activity among young people is a big problem and anything that increases activity is a good thing. But they should be learning basic sporting skills such as catching and kicking, not doing things appropriate for their body size and level of physical maturity.'

However, some gym chains think getting involved in the burgeoning child fitness market could be commercially unwise. 'Our members want to be surrounded by other adults and not their own children or somebody else's,' said a spokeswoman for Living Well clubs. 'Having kids around could irritate some of our members.'

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

close window
back to top

  vertical ruler
vertical ruler   vertical ruler       vertical ruler