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It’s a Jungle Gym Out There!
And do cartwheels over Miss Moira, somersaults for Mr. Ralph, handstands with Miss Alexa …
And their smiles are on high beams for the Little Gym, where they do their best Aly Raisman impressions for instructors weekly (and, increasingly, not weakly) at the Jenkintown site, which gives shape to a fitness program I never imagined when, as a toddler, taking trips to the potty was the most exercise I got.
But here, teams of tykes rise to the occasion as mini-marathoners, tiny tumblers and big-wheel small frys with not so much sugar plum fairies in their heads as fructose-free lifestyles.
They may or may not have heard of Michelle Obama’s cautionary tale of obesity in children — or know of the alarming statistics out of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta — but these lean machines are marching — and springing, and climbing — to their own drummer on soundtracks which serenade their workouts.
Which all proves that it’s never too early to pummel the flab out of obesity.
Absolutely, says Catie Haig, owner of the Little Gym in Jenkintown, where callers hear “Happy Handstands” as their greeting.
A veteran of the Little Gym movement, Catie connects with a wide range of kids attending hour-long sessions (ages of those belonging run from 4 months to 12 years).
“There is a large connection between brain and body,” she says of the importance of developing both at a young age.
“Moving them through such a program as ours stimulates their brain and, of course, also strengthens their bodies.”
There is a body of research to back this all up. Dr. Steve Shapiro, an eminent pediatrician who founded Pediatric Medical Associates in Montgomery County and for the past decade has been chairman of the department of pediatrics at Abington Memorial Hospital, says kids and fitness make for a good fit. “It’s a learned behavior,” he says of working out, “it’s not something you just happen to acquire because you’re an athlete.”
He praises the Little Gyms of the world as well as other child-oriented health facilties while finding fault with his own profession: “We in pediatrics don’t do a good enough job selling” the benefits of exercise.
But the times they are a’changin’: “Some school districts are involving themselves more boldly to improve, to get more physical activity into the student’s day.”
The way to go? The “Weigh to Go,” a program Shapiro started some years back at Abington that combines fitness and good nutrition for kids, all of which “builds confidence in children,” he notes.
It takes two hands to handle a Whopper, but it can take a bigger scale to accommodate those who make a regular diet of it. His program “teaches kids how to eat at a Burger King” without over-indulging and “gets kids exercising at the Abington Health Fitness Center.”
Fat chance? A chance for all, he claims: “It’s not just available for obese kids,” says Shapiro of the 7- and 8-year-olds who attend.
As anyone who sits in at the Little Gym can attest, dance is done by the little dynamos with an exuberance that burns the rug — and calories. And, says Shapiro, “dancing for health is an incredible strenuous activity that is beneficial at any age.”
He needn’t try to convince Amir Yogev, a soaring member the past few years of the Pennsylvania Ballet Company, whose roles have included the title part in the PBC production of “Peter Pan.”
He’ll never grow up? He’s done quite a bit of it since the Kibbutz Tzuba sabra joined the company and has gone en pointe to make a point that dance is a body builder.
Those seemingly effortless limber leaps he takes that make him appear as if he’ll never land — as he did in other roles as well as “Peter Pan” — are rooted in hard work.
“As a child, I found dance was a great way to exercise,” he says, “to use up excess energy.
“It gets you into a combined state of mind and body.”
He was coaxed from the couch early on by his parents. “I could have easily stayed at home on the couch,” says the 24-year-old Israeli.
But, ironically, it was TV that channeled his talents “when I saw some tap-dancing done on” a TV show.
His parents gave him the push to pursue dance; his feet carried him the rest of the way.
He lauds his folks for what they did, acknowledging that parents have an important role to play if they’ll just make the effort.
“There are so many distractions” to exercise, relates Yogev.
“It’s so easy to stay home” and avoid exercise. “Kids just don’t know how much fun it is to be active.”
Isaac Mamaysky does. Along with Lisa Kravitz, he is founder of Camp Zeke, dedicated to “exercise science, nutrition and Jewish education,” espoused by some 20 experts in these fields hoping to make not just good campers, but healthier ones out of those who attend.
With this camp — set to open in the New York area next year — Mamaysky says he hopes to counter “the health epidemic in the country’s Jewish community” with immersion in exercise.
He himself is exercised by the growth of Type II diabetes among youngsters. “Fitness and nutrition can reverse the trend to obesity,” he says.
He is not alone. The CDC has supported this concept in reports over the years, putting some of the blame in the past on the “lack of daily, quality physical activity in all schools.”
A study just issued by UCLA researchers is an alarming shot to the gut — flabby as it probably is — to the nation’s youngsters.
“This study paints a comprehensive picture of childhood obesity, and we were surprised to see just how many conditions were associated with” it, according to the study’s lead team member. Dr. Neal Halfon, director of UCLA’s Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities.
“The findings should serve as a wake-up call to physicians, parents and teachers, who should be better informed of the risk for other health conditions associated with childhood obesity so that they can target interventions that can result in better health outcomes,” averting the ties to more emotional as well as behavioral problems; related school difficulties, including failure to advance in grades; depression; problems associated with bone growth; ear infections; and ADHD.
Exorcise the demons of the sedentary life? Can a camp accomplish this? It helps, says Mamaysky, to make it all “cool” — as is the attraction, he avers, of his camp.
There aren’t a lot of examples out there of Jewish athletes undermining the stereotype of Jewish kids as unfit saps.
This is the weak that was: “Historically the stereotype of Jewish people being weak still exists to a degree, but Israel has turned around the idea of a weak Jew.”
Renee Sasso is so over that image. A camp program director for the Kaiserman JCC who also has found time to make its Kids Time, a fitness program, a major success, Sasso is attuned to the needs of youngsters’ exercise. “Youth fitness is important for not only the obvious health reasons, but it gives them a chance to build self-esteem, learn teamwork and have a safe environment to socialize with their peers,” reflected in Kaiserman’s offering “a different fitness activity every day,” from hip-hop dance to swimming.
“All research shows,” offers Catie Haig of the Little Gym, “that no natter what kind of physical exercise, no matter what sport, kids do well by it.”
Just how well? Gold-medal good? Indeed, Haig emphasized of her gym, “the goal is not to turn out Olympians — we are not competitive — but we teach proper technique and many wind up competing in gymnastics later on.”
Does that mean some of these tiny tykes will soon be competing on the global scale? That these raven-, chestnut- and golden-tressed kids will soon be going for gold of their own?
Maybe. But, for now, only if their parents can take their hands to cross the street to the stadium.
Michael Elkin is features editor of the Jewish Exponent. This article originally appeared in the "Perfect Fit" special section.