Last week, from the sweaty comfort of the StepMill at my gym, I watched Real Housewife Nene Leakes attempt to navigate a gravel parking lot in six-inch Louboutins. Halfway through her second glass of iced moscato, a membership representative marched a group of nine-to-11-year-olds over to the base of my machine, explaining how it works. Instantly, I felt myself grow self-conscious with these youngsters – many of them girls – staring at my backside. Not because I worried they were judging me, but because I’m not used to seeing kids in my gym unless they’re celebrating a birthday in the pool or running through the locker room, screaming like wild banshees for their mom to hurry up so they can get home in time to see Yo Gabba Gabba! For me, the cardio and weight rooms at my gym are adults-only areas: There’s no reason for little ones to be hanging around dumbbells or Stairmasters bikes when they could be outside playing or on a soccer or softball field somewhere.
But lately, everywhere I turn my head at my gym, there’s a kid working out. A sixth grade girl furiously pedaling on the recumbent bike; a Bieber-coiffed young lad shuffling along the treadmill; a young lady, not even 12, eeking out lunges and crunches with a personal trainer.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for kids getting exercise, especially considering that a third of American children are overweight or obese. (Is it any wonder, considering just last month, the House of Representatives blocked legislation that would have rendered school lunches healthier, introducing a spending bill that would count the two tablespoons of tomato paste used on an average slice of school pizza as a full serving of vegetables?) But there’s just something so soul-crushing about seeing a pre-pubescent girl on a cardio machine at the gym. It makes me want to run up and rip her off the treadmill and scream, “Not yet! There will be plenty of time for this when you’re older and have been conditioned by society to think you must spend an hour a day on this hamster wheel in order to burn off the calories in your lunchtime salad with grilled chicken, walnuts and Craisins, dressing on the side!”
Are their parents just bringing them in because it’s wintertime in Chicago and too chilly to run around the park? Or is this a new trend – baby gym rats? When I think of kids and physical activity, I envision youth sports leagues where competition and teamwork are the end goals and expending energy is just a happy, healthful side effect. Hitting the elliptical, on the other hand, absolutely screams “Must Burn Calories!” It’s not the healthiest mentality for adults, emotionally speaking, so I can only imagine how it wrecks a child’s mindset and warps their body image.
I asked Seattle-based ACE-certified personal trainer Kelly Turner, an editor and fitness expert for DietsInReview.com, for her take on peewee perspiration. “Physically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with it,” she said, noting that the NFL’s Fuel Up To Play 60 program recommends an hour of physical activity a day for youngsters. “Normally, that would be unstructured play or team sports, but with all the program and PE cutbacks, there are fewer options to get kids moving.” In that respect, Turner is a fan of parents purchasing gym memberships for their kids.
Mentally, it’s more of a slippery slope. On one hand, Turner said it’s incredibly beneficial for kids to see people of all shapes and sizes taking time to improve their health. “It helps them realize how valuable their bodies are and that ‘fit’ isn’t a pant size or a number on the scale.” That said, if a parent sends their kid to the gym with the sole intent of losing weight, it can wreck their fragile self esteem. The key: Emphasize exercise’s positive impact on everything from energy and health to mood and academic performance. “They can still learn about goal-setting and build a positive work ethic even though they’re not in the team sports setting,” Turner adds. “They’ll learn that if you put in time at the gym, you’ll see the results.” Solo sweat sessions seem too depressing? Many gyms offer group youth Zumba and yoga classes so kiddos can make friends and experience the team-building atmosphere they’re missing from an actual team.
Watching a tween cue up the elliptical for 30 minutes and tuning into Dora the Explorer on her headphones still depresses me, but at least now I can see the potential benefit. But if I start seeing ads for Bat Mitzvah Boot Camp in the ladies’ locker room, I’m gonna raise some serious hell.