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Doing More to Help Kids Fight Obesity  

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D.

Ever since the mid-1800s, when the Turner Movement, an initiative that originated in Germany, began promoting health and fitness in America, adults and youth utilized its facilities side by side. The Movement built gyms in Cincinnati, St. Louis, and New York City, where, as legend has it, baseball great Lou Gehrig, who played 17 seasons with the New York Yankees, worked out with his father.

Clearly, much has changed since then, and, today, the U.S. is grappling with an obesity problem that’s taken a particularly hard toll on young people.

Nearly 20% of children and adolescents ages two to 19 are obese, creating a pandemic in this age group. The current level of physical inactivity has been labeled “exercise deficit disorder.” Physical education classes, regarded as an expendable part of the curriculum, are being offered in fewer and fewer schools and colleges.

A University of Oregon study found that only 39% of colleges now require PE courses—that vs. 97% many years ago. While another study, published recently in the journal Pediatrics, estimated that, if all adolescents played on at least two sports teams per year, the obesity rate among teens would plunge to 11%.

All of this makes me wonder, what’s the fitness industry doing to help the growing number of overweight and obese youngsters?

Not nearly enough, it seems to me.

At the same time, it’s true that some club operators have begun responding to the need—either with programs of their own design, or in concert with schools, local and national organizations, and special, kid-specific initiatives. Here are two:

Operation FITKIDS, developed by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), is a free, age-appropriate curriculum for children in grades 3-5 and 6-8 that teaches them about the dangers of being overweight, and how to live a more active, healthy lifestyle. It’s a great program for clubs to offer parents and families, or to use as the basis for collaborative efforts with pediatric groups (see

NFL PLAY 60 is a grassroots level program designed to help youngsters get exercise through flag football and similar games and activities, for the suggested 60 minutes a day (see Many NFL players and coaches support this initiative year round, though it’s most prominent during the NFL’s key calendar events, including Super Bowl, Pro Bowl, Draft, Kickoff and Thanksgiving.

Partnering with programs like these, working with schools, creating contests, and hosting community events to promote children’s activity for 60 minutes a day will not only help them, it will also put your facility on the map.

It’s not just good PR, it’s good business.

You may also want to consider offering community-focused classes to help parents deal with the kind of food that’s available to their children in schools, how to overcome the limited access they may have to healthy foods, and how to handle increased portion sizes.

In the end, encouraging physical activity and good nutrition for kids and teens is everyone’s responsibility—and we should be taking the active lead in this initiative.

What specific steps are you taking to celebrate the awesome role you have in health promotion for this generation?

I’ll be glad to help you with the answering this question. Feel free to contact me at Too many young lives are at stake, and too many business opportunities exist, for you to sit on the sidelines with respect to this important issue.

- Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D., is the senior fitness consultant for behavioral sciences for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Reader Comments (2)

Exercise is not just an issue relating to obesity, a child who exercises performs better academically, has fewer disciplinary issues, (immediate benefit for parents) less stress, sleeps better, is less prone to depression and suicide, has higher self esteem and the list of emotional, psychological, and physiological benefits go on and on. It's not only good for the fitness industry to include fitness programs for kids but for America. Kids who enjoy and engage in exercise have a profound impact on their parents; the fitness industry may attract a wider adult audience by including a fitness program for kids. I'm proposing all inclusive fitness programs for kids, not sports skills and conditioning programs, you can suck at sports-you cannot suck at exercise! ACE or IHRSA could champion fitness for kids by offering pre-printed handouts and press releases for their members to download and distribute to members and media educating the public of all the personal and societal benefits of exercise and giving them encouragement and permission to advocate for daily exercise in schools, and adding value to exercise which could create a new revenue source in children's fitness. Perhaps it’s time the professional fitness industry champion a trend, it just might brighten the outlook for our industry’s future.
July 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLee Spieker
Lee...good to connect again here. Thank you for your remarks. Your insights certainly add weight to my argument ...the numbers are decreasing in America but for many reasons, the fitness industry can and wisely should, do more.
August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Mantell

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