Pumping plastic? Workout programs for the kindergarten set

Now that the fitness industry has everybody over the age of six riding exercycles that measure pulse rate, or wearing computerized running shoes that clock mileage, who is left? Everybody six and under, of course.

Let's start with the kindergarten crowd first and jog our way over to the crib set.

Girls as young as five can now don pastel sweatbands for 20-minute exercise sessions packaged by Hasbro under the name ``Get in Shape, Girl!'' Your flabby five-year-old, entering this ``fitness program for today's young girl,'' will don ankle weights and weighted bracelets (``as much for toning as for fashion''). If this is not stimulating burden enough, the tottering tot can pump water-filled hand weights.

A workout manual (``just like Mom's'') will tell her how to do it, itemizing ``challenging routines that help girls become lean and limber'' -- with the aid of a pink exercise mat (optional).

``Kids are in terrible, terrible shape,'' says Maureen Souza, vice-president of girls' toys at Hasbro. ``Kids have never been in such bad shape, which is ironic because the adult population is so obsessed with fitness. So that is becoming a very big market [for toy manufacturers].''

But there's no need to wait until age 5 to stop decrepitude. So say the fitness sellers at Matchbox Toys, manufacturers of a product billed as ``Babycise.'' This includes a one-hour video offering 10-minute workouts for an infant ``from his first gurgle through his first steps.''

``Our philosophy is not to create superbabies,'' says Diane Horton, marketing director for Matchbox Toys. ``What we're trying to do is to give Mom and Dad a fun way to spend quality time with their baby. The whole purpose is to encourage intimacy and bonding between parent and child. As added benefits, the baby's muscle tone, motor skills, balance, and coordination can be stimulated. But the real stress on the program is that this is a real fun way for babies and parents to spend time together.''

Perhaps. Still, this kind of togetherness can get expensive. A Babycise starter set is available for $39 to $49. For $100 to $150, parents can buy the deluxe version, which includes an exercise mat, a bolster, three triangle blocks, and baby barbells. Other products -- a clutch ball, baby mirror, and balance beam -- are sold separately.

With everything from kiddie gyms and infant exercise centers to products for junior joggers and pint-sized Jane Fondas, fitness is being reduced -- excuse the expression -- to a new absurdity.

Call it the trickle-down theory of slimness.

According to a survey on body image in the April issue of Psychology Today, ``women hold rather extreme standards for an acceptable body. . . . To the extent that women internalize a relentlessly thin standard to determine their attractiveness, they are left with two chances for a good body image, slim and none.''

The message has been pushed on to the daughters. Thirteen percent of American teen-agers practice some form of ``binge-purge'' eating behavior, according to a new study by researchers at Stanford University, with girls outnumbering boys 2 to 1.

Many of these young women have a distorted image of their own bodies, researchers report, and diet obsessively.

The quest for an elusive physical ideal has come to haunt a whole generation of women. Dieting has become a $10 billion industry. Health clubs continue to spring up like daffodils in April. And exhortations to ``pinch an inch,'' ``Nautilize your thighs,'' and ``go for the burn'' appear everywhere.

And now the tyranny has been extended back to the sandbox -- back to the cradle!

True, a presidential council on physical fitness reported last month that the United States ranks below at least 18 other countries in youth fitness, with American schoolchildren achieving a ``low level of performance'' in running, jumping, flexibility, and strength. But one chief culprit -- beside cutbacks in school physical education programs -- is too much television, according to the presidential council.

This finding could lead a concerned but thrifty parent to a no-cost alternative to the juvenile-fitness products. Here is a simple three-step exercise plan any child can learn:

First, simply flick a wrist to turn off the TV set. Next, walk briskly to the door. Finally, head outside for a half-hour of play.

You know, play, also known as ``having fun.'' You throw a ball. You ride a bike. You climb a tree. You run your legs off at ``Tag -- you're it.''

But do it quickly -- before some fitness idealist packages a jump rope, a rubber ball, and some chalk for hopscotch, labels the kit ``Supergirl I,'' and sells it for $19.95. With everything from kiddie gyms and infant exercise centers to products for junior joggers and pint-sized Jane Fondas, fitness is being reduced -- excuse the expression -- to a new absurdity. Call it the trickle-down theory of slimness.

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