Kids with Personal Trainers:Is this pushing the limit?

There aren’t many 10-year-olds like Ariel Ho. A competitive figure skater, Ariel wakes up at each morning at 5:30am. She has warmed up with a personal trainer by 6:15 and is on the ice at 6:45 — all before heading off to school.

Ariel’s schedule may be rigorous for a 10-year-old, but she is not the only kid seeking a personal trainer to enhance her performance these days. As budget-strapped schools slice their physical education programs, parents are looking to health clubs for help. Others turn to personal trainers to give their kids an edge on sports teams or to help motivate them to lead a healthy lifestyle.

According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, 6- to 18-year-olds are the second fastest growing market for health club memberships. The number of people under 18 working out in health clubs is now about 4 million, up 12 percent from just five years ago. Additionally, about a third of health clubs now have junior fitness programs. The New York Sports Club, for example, dropped the minimum age for membership from 17 to 14 in 2003. The club has also put strength-training classes for 11- to 16-year-olds on the schedule.

But is this trend healthy for our kids?

Some experts believe it’s more a function of practicality for parents than enjoyment for kids.

“When I was employed as a personal fitness trainer and fitness center manager, I witnessed many parents using the fitness center as a day care facility,” says Jayne Kitsos, program coordinator of the Athletic Training Program at Hofstra University. “Parents drop off their adolescent children at the fitness center and then pick them up two or three hours later. The children were supervised in general by the fitness staff, but they lacked the physical coordination or knowledge of strength training to engage in an exercise program for that length of time without risking injury.”

Kitsos says the trend doesn’t surprise her for another reason: kids’ schedules. As more and more parents keep date books for their children’s activities, play becomes organized and arranged. Kids are on tight schedules, and personal trainers are just another “activity” parents arrange for their children. But Kitsos, whose Hofstra program specializes in the prevention, recognition, and treatment of sports-related injuries, believes this is not the solution for parents wanting to engage their children in a fitness routine.

“The best way for children to develop muscle strength, coordination and general cardiovascular health is to engage in open play with other children,” she says. “There’s a lot to be said for climbing across the monkey bars and playing with swings at the playground. Playing tag and running potato sack races are the physical activities normal children engage in when they have open play. This is where physical fitness is developed safely. It’s not necessarily the supervision of a personal trainer that makes it safe.

“Supervision in a fitness facility is safer than being unsupervised, but as far as physical development is concerned, it is open play activities that contribute to a child’s overall health and really teach them the importance of exercising on a regular basis over a lifetime. I also believe in engaging children in sports and other physical activities like dance, cheerleading or swimming, to teach them the value of team play. You don’t learn this when you’re working one-on-one with a personal trainer at age six.”

In fact, Kitsos thinks children should stay away from formal strength training exercise until the age of 14 or 15.

Ariel’s mother, Angela, hired a trainer because her daughter was having knee problems. “I noticed her alignment and her posture were all wrong and that her coach wasn’t noticing that,” explains Angela. “He was just teaching her technique; he didn’t have much idea of posture and alignment.” After many visits to physiotherapists and doctors, Angela hired a trainer. “He’s been very, very helpful,” she says.

Ariel says her trainer, Jarrod Jordon, has helped her performance on and off the ice. “I think it’s really cool, and I think he’s improved my back and stuff because I used to walk like a duck and now I don’t,” she reports.

Jordon trains kids ages 5 and up at all skill levels at Chelsea Piers. He says the majority of parents hire him to stop physical problems, such as painful knee or lower back conditions, from happening to their kids. “They feel that if they could have done it earlier, they could have had healthier 20s, 30s, and 40s.”

He sees a correlation between inactive kids and physical dysfunction. Kids ages 8 and up, for example, have been sitting behind desks for two or more years. “You start seeing the same things in (these kids) that you do in adults who have been sitting in cubicles: tight hamstrings, a forward tilt in the pelvis, lower back curve, the shoulders start to round forward,” he says. “It’s not quite as bad or quite as painful, but you can see the start of a trend.”

Jordon considers one of the root problems to be cessation of recess time around the third grade. “The kids love me for saying this, but I think they need more recess time. We know that inactive bodies or bodies stuck in certain positions lead to serious conditions, such as osteoporosis, arthritis, and at the very least, joint dysfunction.”

A child with joint dysfunction becomes inhibited from playing sports such as soccer, volleyball, or even skating because it can cause pain. “So they quit altogether and instead choose to play that same sport on their Sega,” Jordon says. “So what I generally try to do is get their bodies functioning properly.”

Jordon, who is also the strength coach for a junior hockey team in New Jersey, focuses heavily and most intensely on biomechanics. “I give them exercises to take the joint through a range of motion that increases its strength to keep it moving and functioning properly,” he explains.

He has kids doing balancing exercises using balls and wobble boards. “The kids are having a blast doing this, not realizing that at the same time they’re increasing their neuromuscular capacity,” he adds.

Kitsos agrees that using physioballs is an excellent way for kids to exercise. “It teaches balance and stability,” she notes. “But as far as picking up dumbbells and barbells and using actual fitness machines — I ask, why put your child on a treadmill for 20 minutes to run when you can let them run outside? We all know how much more fun it is for kids to run outside.”