Kidding around: How children’s fitness is becoming big business

Isha Arora
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No kidding. Children are joining the club - to sweat it out with adults in gyms and other fitness centres, as parents are walking the extra mile to keep obesity at a safe distance from their wards. The whole idea of kids 'working out' and engaging in different activities to enhance their fitness levels might have seemed bizarre till a few years ago, but not anymore. The concept is fast becoming the new normal with parents getting increasingly concerned about the deteriorating health and fitness of their children.

This worry is not without reason as children are hardly seen outdoors anymore - playgrounds, no matter how few in numbers, lie idle in solitude, bereft of the rollicking activities, games of tag (touch-and-go). Children nowadays are surrounded by too many screens to venture out. There's also the issue of easier and unrestricted access to all the 'wrong foods' that are detrimental to the well-being of a child. "Instant noodles are considered a treat, like positive reinforcement. If a child has achieved something, parents treat her to a bowl of instant noodles, so children look at it as a reward. School canteens are also serving fried and junk food that is low on nutrition. In a way, kids are no longer used to eating simple, natural food anymore," says 53-year-old Nishriin Parikh, a fitness enthusiast who holds yoga strength training sessions for kids and adults in Mumbai.

All these factors are prompting parents to send their children - both minors and teenagers - to gyms or classes that work towards enhancing fitness. A number of gyms catering exclusively to kids have opened in the recent past, even as the existing gym chains, that traditionally focus on fitness and bodybuilding for adults, have expanded their horizons to introduce specific training sessions and activities for kids. "The more you expose your children to fitness at an early age, the better it is. Initially, I would take my 10-year-old daughter to a park, but then I realised that she doesn't enjoy it anymore. Besides, she's not a very sporty person, and loves to eat. That's when I started taking her to a yoga training session with me for fitness," says 42-year-old Anjum Bhagat, a Mumbai-based special educator, currently working with Cathedral and John Connon School.

Seema Arora (name changed), a 44-year-old Delhi-based media professional, has also started sending her 12-year-old daughter to a gym in her locality for weight loss. "I tried regular sports like tennis, but found that she was not getting sustained exercise through her game. Moreover, to avoid the heat and pollution of the city, an indoor gym is a preferred option. My daughter has been a member of a gym for the past five months, and is training for over an hour daily," she says.

A lot has been written about the ill-effects of inactivity and lethargy among kids. The most common among them has taken the form of obesity even among toddlers. According to the World Health Organisation, global obesity figures have nearly tripled since 1975. A sizeable chunk of this obesity burden on kids is reportedly borne by India alone. A 2017 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine revealed that India has the second-highest number of obese children in the world after China, the official figure being 14.4 million. The study collated data from 195 countries between 1980 and 2015. "Obesity is definitely the most common problem that kids suffer from these days. Children in the 7-10 age group as well as in adolescent years tend to become obese the most. It is a silent killer," says Fazal Nabi, director of the department of paediatrics at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre in Delhi. Obesity is also the reason behind ailments as severe as stroke and diabetes in the long run.

Workout for kids
The physique and body type of children vary vastly from adults and traditional exercises that suit adults do not work for kids. In fact, a look at the current market for kids’ fitness reveals that activities such as gymnastics, aerobics, zumba, yoga, boxing attract the younger generation far more than regular work-out regimes. Future Fit, a Gurugram-based gymnastics centre for children has thrived on this trend.

"I have always felt that our country in general and Delhi NCR in particular lack opportunities for kids to be physically active. No matter how much we complain about them being lazy and glued to screens, we as parents and caregivers have not been able to deal with issues related to pollution and safety, which have restricted children's access to outdoor activities. These issues marked the genesis of Future Fit," says Nidhi Mathur, founder and director of one of the largest privately owned gymnastics facilities in India.

Founded in September 2013 with two kids on board, Future Fit has grown by leaps and bounds with a current active base of 2,000 children in their 14 academies operational in Delhi and Kolkata. Since most of the gyms do not have proper facilities for members below 16 years, Future Fit decided to follow the gymnastics route to help the young lot attain optimum fitness levels. "Gymnastics is the mother of all sports. Before a child takes up a formal sport, the motor skills, muscle strength and flexibility need to reach an advanced level, which can be achieved through proper gymnastic training," says Mathur. The centre has 40-45 trainers working for it, all of whom have formal training in gymnastics and have participated in state-, national- and international-level competitions. While the venture continues to be bootstrapped, it has plans to launch at least five more centres by the year-end.

Parikh, a famed athlete in her own right, has earned a name for herself in the world of yoga training as she understood the needs of children even better than fitness experts. "My yoga strength programme is an integration of aasanas and strength training, because we would all lose muscle mass as we grow older. So we should try retain and build most of it now. Yoga aasanas help with flexibility. I have kids who are doing so well that they set out differently in whatever sports they play," says Parikh, who has achieved cult status for her innovative and unique approach to fitness. The trainer practises with a small group of students from grade I to XII. Previously, she was a teacher with DY Patil International School, where she took classes on functional training and healthy eating.

Another Faridabad-based trainer, Rajiv Godara, an international-level boxer, has opened a boxing academy, The Dronacharya Boxing Club, in the city, which, he says, lacks centres to promote fitness among kids. "All other forms of training can be applied only in the context of fitness. But boxing is one such sport where a child can make a career and be fit simultaneously," says Godara. The boxer, who has made the country proud by winning a gold in one of the two international-level boxing tournaments he has participated, has been training children for the past five years. Currently, he trains 245 kids in his academy, most of whom play national- and international-level tournaments. The humble trainer teaches girls free of cost.

Established gyms take cues
Well-established gym chains are also trying to cash in on this increased focus on kids' fitness and have upgraded their facilities and programmes accordingly. For instance, Anytime Fitness, a popular health and fitness club chain, has devised a string of activities exclusively for kids, keeping their requirements in mind. "We do not engage kids in any weightlifting activities. Instead, we teach them a bit of zumba, aerobics, yoga and make them do stretching exercises, push-ups, pull-ups, which help in enhancing the strength of their muscles and correcting their posture," says New Delhi-based Chirag Khurana, marketing head at the gym club.

Since working out alone hardly solves the purpose, a lot of Anytime Fitness centres across the country seek to inculcate healthy eating habits among kids, too. "Currently, less than 1% (0.6% precisely) of our population takes their health seriously and focuses on working out to remain healthy. In case of kids, our focus is always on extra-curricular activities and good eating habits. We recommend a dietary plan that would be most suited to each kid, and since children are into eating excessive junk food these days, it becomes all the more important to have a balanced diet," adds Khurana.

A rising demand during summer vacations prompted Mumbai-based JG's Fitness Centre to introduce two classes per week only for kids for activities like pilates, yoga, boot camp, which includes everything under callisthenics, such as pull-ups, push-ups, lunges, crunches, drills and sprints. Since the centre is widely known for its masala bhangra regime, trainers teach kids the art of dance-based fitness workout too. "Close to 20% of our current clients are kids even though we don't specifically cater to them. It's about time we take our kids' fitness seriously as they are our tomorrow. With parents being the best teachers for children, the idea of fitness should have its roots at home. The family which eats together, exercises together and spends time together is a healthy family," says Shalini Bhargava, director of the centre.

What about schools?
Though sports activities feature in the school curriculum, they hardly seem to be helping pupils attain and maintain their fitness levels. There are reasons aplenty for that. For one, the physical education classes are hardly ever taken seriously. Two, the concept of functional training is still far fetched in an education system that pays more heed to academics than sports and holistic development. "There's no structured programme for children's fitness in schools. During sports hours, what majority of teachers would do is to take kids to sports grounds. The ones who are enthusiastic would play and the rest would just sit silently," rues Parikh. "If schools spare a small space for functional training, it would go a long way in enhancing fitness. They should have a versatile, circuit training programme, supposed to be completed in a given span. Schools have space, why can't they have a structured room and take fitness classes for kids there? Everything doesn't have to be about academics. It is also supposed to be about physical and mental well being of a child," she adds.

Even school canteens aren’t really helping in promoting healthy eating habits as mouth-watering snacks available there are very low on nutritional value. "Even though we have a no-junk food policy at home, we aren't being able to regulate kids' consumption of snacks. If parents are travelling or busy with work and maids are given the task of filing those boxes, they tend to opt for the easiest options and children's health takes a back seat," notes Bhagat.

A few schools have gym facilities on their premises, but fitness activities always tend to be ignored when academics get tougher and pressure to score good marks takes centre stage. Kids tend to utilise their physical education classes to catch up on pending homework. However, an improved focus on holistic development has prompted a number of private schools such as Delhi Public School, Bal Bharti Public School and the likes to take cognisance of the issue and introduce gymnastics and fitness activities as part of curriculum.

Mumbai-based Cathedral and John Connon School, for instance, holds weekly gymnastics sessions for kids in the age group of 5-7 years on its premises. The facility exists for pupils in the older age bracket as well, but for those in 5-7 years range, it is mandatory to attend these sessions.

"The principal keeps contacting me to enquire if any new equipment are required for smooth functioning of the facility. Currently, there are balancing beams, springboards, gym mats, ropes and the kind of apparatus usually present in a school gym," says Rajesh Katwa, a school instructor. "The school has been paying a lot of emphasis on the overall development of children and keeps encouraging parents and students to join these activities," he adds. There is a separate instructor for older kids, but Raju sir, as the kids fondly call him, remains a favourite among school goers. So much so that he privately holds out-of-school sessions for teenagers who wish to continue training with him.

"I've been training kids at the school for the past 18 years, and the response keeps getting better. Both the schools and parents understand that 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'," Katwa adds.