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Leave No Children on Their Behinds

It's ironic. As concern grows over children's harmful weight, physical education gets less and less emphasis in many schools. In response, there's more and more interest in fitness programs for kids outside of schools.

An International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association survey shows that 4.5 million U.S. kids under age 18 belong to health clubs -- up 25 percent in five years. Call it "No Child Left on Their Behind," says exercise physiologist Jan Schroeder, Ph.D., director of event programming for the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, a fitness professionals' group.

Local Y's have offered kids programs for years. Many health clubs are joining them. What should you look for in a fitness program for your child?

  • Age-appropriate gear. Many kids can't reach the pedals on a stationary bike, for instance. If your child wants strength training, the grips on normal resistance machines are too far apart and the weight increments are too big.

  • Age-appropriate programs. Look for a class geared to your child's size and abilities. "Typically, you want a child in a class with peers, not with adults," says Dr. Schroeder. "A child's motor coordination may not be as well defined, and sociological issues, including possible embarrassment or intimidation, may make your child feel uncomfortable."

  • Qualified supervision. Seek trainers who are used to working with kids. Look for better instructor-to-student ratios than adult classes. Dr. Schroeder suggests one supervisor for every 20 teens and one for every 12 younger children.

  • Fun. "Kids are so stressed with school that the emphasis should be on having a good time," says Joan Missett-Gambill, coordinator of Junior Jazzercise. About 500,000 3- to 16-year-olds have joined this Jazzercise program nationwide. Besides music movement routines for girls, Jazzercise now offers 6- to 12-year-old boys classes that include kickboxing and strength training. "Make sure it's noncompetitive," she adds.