Personal Trainers Getting School Kids Into Shape

Personal trainers have long worked with teenagers working to earn athletic scholarships or spots on elite teams, and even Hollywood movie stars trimming down for a role. But now the industry is coaching elementary school kids who are trying to get in shape. Sandy Hausman reports.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, a back-alley interview with singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton.

First, a story about a new trend aimed at combatting childhood obesity. Some parents are spending thousands of dollars for specialized training programs to get their kids back into shape. Sandy Hausman reports.

SANDY HAUSMAN reporting:

Colleen Renane(ph) is a study in pink. The fourth-grader arrives at her neighborhood strip mall wearing a pastel jogging suit. Her cherubic face is radiant as she enters a kid-friendly gym called X2(ph), takes a scorecard to track today's workout and hops on the treadmill.

COLLEEN RENANE (Fourth-Grader): First I do, like, a round of weights, and I come on the treadmill and do about a half an hour, maybe 45 minutes. And then I do another round of the weights and then probably go back on this again.

HAUSMAN: Colleen's parents proposed joining X2 when their daughter started putting on weight. She jumped at the chance. Running a half a mile in gym class always left her breathless and unhappy.

RENANE: I felt really, like, down on myself because, like, a lot of people came faster than me, and it's kind of, like, I can't do the things that other people can do,

HAUSMAN: This year, she's looking forward to phys ed and is delighted to find that losing five pounds makes clothes fit better.

RENANE: I feel more happy now, now that I have improved.

HAUSMAN: In another corner of the bright yellow and red gym, 12-year-old Michael Schremp(ph) and his friend James are pursuing a different goal, hoping to improve their odds at basketball tryouts by pedaling stationary bikes that propel characters through a video game called Simpsons Road Rage.

(Soundbite of video game)

Unidentified Character: Ow, my buttocks!

MICHAEL SCHREMP: Both me and him are trying out for a traveling basketball team, and we thought coming here would get us in better shape, make us strong and stuff to get better on the court.

HAUSMAN: Getting better is an expensive proposition, about $20 per session for a customized workout with small-group or one-on-one instruction. It's more than some parents would spend on themselves, but business is booming, because moms like Susan Steicher(ph) are worried about their kids.

Ms. SUSAN STEICHER (Mother): There is a history on both sides of our family of heart problems, and we wanted to kind of develop a base for him to be able to take this going on forward in his life.

HAUSMAN: Michelle Papiccios(ph) has gone through physical therapy for hip and knee problems. She brings her eight-year-old daughter to another youth training center, Velocity Sports Performance, hoping she'll learn ways to stay healthy and strong.

Ms. MICHELLE PAPICCIOS (Mother): Hopefully, it will save her a lifetime of troubles because when you injure yourself, it's a really hard thing to come back from.

HAUSMAN: And then there are parents like Laurie Hughes(ph), who just want their kids to play team sports. Unfortunately, she says, making the team at a big competitive suburban school is tough.

Ms. LAURIE HUGHES (Mother): It's not a sure thing. I mean, there's a million kids that play soccer, you know.

HAUSMAN: And finally, some parents complain that children today can't stay fit the old-fashioned way, by playing outside with neighbors. Heather Barkdall(ph) has a 12-year-old daughter who trains twice a week at Velocity.

Ms. HEATHER BARKDALL (Mother): We find that in the neighborhood, everybody is so busy, you don't find the kids out playing like we did when we were kids.

Unidentified Woman: Start at the 10, coming back. Start at the 10.

HAUSMAN: To give their kids an edge, parents are enrolling children in programs that focus heavily on technique, something once of interest only to serious athletes. Velocity coach Mike Peddicord says, for example, that children need to be taught how to run properly.

Mr. MIKE PEDDICORD (Coach, Velocity Sports Performance): Unless they are taught, they're not going to really understand why they need to pump their arms or why they need to cycle through a proper way and keep their toes flexed and things of that nature.

HAUSMAN: And for families hoping for athletic scholarships or careers in pro sports, there's an elite youth program developed by John Frappier, a physiologist who studied the ways of winning Soviet teams in the days they dominated the Olympics.

Unidentified Man: Ready? Go!

HAUSMAN: Acceleration Chicago is equipped with treadmills that can go 29 miles an hour, machines designed for professional and college athletes now being used by kids as young as eight.

To build business as well as fitness, youth training centers are forming partnerships with local teams and schools, growing at a rapid rate. X2 is just getting started with three gyms, but Acceleration boasts 135 centers. Velocity has sold 167 franchises, opened 55 centers and hopes to have 20 more up and running this year. For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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