Fun, Sweat And Cheers

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Forget sit-ups. For today's kids, exercise means blending aerobics with video games and other advanced equipment for a workout that's enjoyable and good for them

After pedaling, pushing and pounding his way through a demanding workout, 11-year-old Vincent Tran was ready to plunge into his just reward. In no time, his feet were flying and sweat was dripping as he stomped on a rubber mat and boogied in sync with the dancing flowers on the video screen. Seven minutes passed as he got lost in the interactive video game Dance Dance Revolution at Fisher & Fisher Fitness & Medical Clinic in Arlington. For Vincent and others of the PlayStation generation, fitness and fun have come together in a big way. Video games are powered by stationary bikes, and treadmills send kids climbing up the walls. Little legs kick away villains in cyberspace or balance on a snowboard as they sail down Aspen slopes. Kids don carpet skates to slide across carpeting or sit on giant balls to bounce around the floor, sending their hearts racing into overdrive. This new world of fitness is a long way from sit-ups in gym class. And it comes just in the nick of time. More than 40 percent of Texas children are overweight or obese. The extra weight puts them at risk for illnesses once found mostly in adults, including type II diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It also ups the odds of them turning into obese adults. A child who is obese by age 12 has more than a 75 percent chance of becoming an obese adult, according to Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. The amount of time children spend exercising in school has long been controversial in Texas. There have been numerous obstacles to overcome to get kids exercising, including lack of space or air-conditioned gyms in some districts and a lack of respect for physical education, said Georgi Roberts, director of health and physical education for the Fort Worth school district. "But as children play, children learn," she said. Since 2001, Texas has required elementary school students to participate in 135 minutes of physical exercise a week. Middle schools must offer physical education, and some districts, such as Fort Worth, require a semester of PE. Three semesters of physical education are required to graduate from high school. To combat obesity, educators are looking past the traditional sports that are mainstays in high school to activities that most children can enjoy. Traditional sports are great for the handful of kids who are able to participate in competitive activities such as basketball, Roberts said. But not every child is going to be able to play competitive sports because of his or her skill level, the limited number of spots on teams and lack of interest. "We're trying to make a variety of activities available so that most kids are going to be successful," she said. "We're trying to show the students that exercise doesn't have to be boring or embarrassing." For the generation that has virtually grown up in cyberspace, blending aerobics with technology makes perfect sense. Not surprisingly, entrepreneurs and fitness gurus have figured out the best way to reach the hearts of young couch potatoes is through their Xbox. At EnerGym in Southlake, a private facility equipped with high-tech exercise equipment geared for children 6 to 14, Kevin Bolden saw a need and moved to fill it by opening the gym this summer. "Not all kids like to do healthy activities, but kids universally love video games and interactive activities," he said. "So we began wondering if we could get equipment geared for kids." Cheree Holden of Southlake said her son Davis, 7, begs to work out at the gym. He goes about three times a week and is hooked on riding the bikes that are connected to video games. The faster he pedals, the faster the car on the video screen in front of him zooms down the racetrack. "They don't just throw them in a room and baby-sit them; they really work with them," Holden said. "He comes out every single time totally sweating, which is what you want a 7-year-old to do." The Fort Worth school district last year began offering some of the same high-tech tools found in private gyms. Besides more traditional equipment such as hand weights and elliptical trainers, high school fitness centers are stocked with stationary bikes that can be connected to video games. "We took the phenomenon of video games and made it compatible with exercise," Roberts said. " Dance Dance Revolution is very popular, and the kids will just do it forever." Fort Worth is a leader in using high-tech exercise equipment, with a handful of districts around the state also taking a new approach. The Plano school district uses climbing walls, heart-rate monitors and other tools to captivate students. Not everything that is catching on is high-tech, but all of it is more fun than old-school calisthenics. At some Fort Worth and H-E-B elementary schools, students are learning to tango and rumba for a ballroom competition in December. The dance program the children are participating in was created by Pierre Dulaine, who founded Dancing Classrooms in New York City schools more than 10 years ago. The program is spreading around the country. And fencing, rock climbing and yoga demonstrations will get kids moving at the FitFuture Kids Fest on Saturday at Will Rogers Memorial Center. One novel approach of this event is an activity trail with stops where kids can Hula-Hoop, lift weights or jump rope. It's a simple way to get families interested in exercising, which is what the event is all about, said Mary Schimmoller, health educator with FitFuture for Tarrant County, a network of public and private organizations brought together by the United Way of Tarrant County to build a healthier community. "It's not something you come and watch; it's something you do," she said. "We want families to leave feeling like 'Yes, we can do this at home.'" In the Fort Worth schools, educators are imparting that same can-do spirit to high school students by encouraging them to practice healthy habits and then track their progress. Scales are being used in some schools that print out the child's body fat and water weight. The goal is to raise the activity level as well as the cognitive level, Roberts said. Heart-rate monitors that can be set by the individual and beep when they reach the target zone are teaching students to compete against themselves instead of each other, Roberts said. Nobody in the class has to know the child's heart rate, which is especially important for children who are not as healthy, she said. At Dr. Maria Fisher's fitness and medical clinic in Arlington, children exercise in a fun, supportive environment. As a pediatrician, Fisher saw a need for a program that would teach children to eat nutritious meals and exercise as part of a healthier lifestyle. Her plan was to closely monitor the children as they exercised and keep track of their lab results. A year ago, she opened the fitness center in her office. Most of the children in the program are overweight and at risk for diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. During hour-long classes, they use treadmills, run laps and lift weights, but they also can slide across the room on carpet skates or bounce on giant balls. Classes are topped off with a healthy snack and a discussion on why, for example, nuts are a good choice. Diana Ruelas of Fort Worth said she has seen the difference the classes have made in her daughter Laura, 10. Her good cholesterol is up, her bad cholesterol is down and she's dropped at least one dress size. After two weeks of working out, the children have more energy and they clearly feel better about themselves, Fisher said. "It just changes them," she said. "Teachers have said it's the first year some of them have had friends." The changes are not limited to better self-esteem. Fisher has seen the children's lab work improve. Their cholesterol levels and insulin levels drop, she said. On average they lose 2 to 7 pounds per month. Kids can progress much more rapidly than adults, said Bolden of EnerGym. "They don't know that they're stronger, but they see they are not getting as tired," he said. Bre'Ayzia Johnson, a 10-year-old from Everman, has seen what a difference working out at Fisher's center makes. "I have fun and enjoy doing things that help me with weight," she said. "And I just feel better." Ann Tran of Arlington said she can hardly keep up with her son Vincent, who used to spend a lot of time in front of the TV. Now he works out, runs with his dad and watches what he eats. Vincent, a sixth-grader at Dunn Elementary in Arlington, had to be coaxed away from Dance Dance Revolution when his seven-minute time limit was up. After stomping on the DDR floor mat, bouncing on a mini-trampoline and racing around the room atop giant balls during the session at Fisher's clinic, he was still going strong. "Exercising is just really, really fun," he said.

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