Several hundred children in Virginia Beach, Va., are celebrating spring in a different way this year. Instead of riding bikes around the block on a balmy afternoon - a classic form of youthful exercise - they're heading for the new Superkids Fitness Club to pedal Kidcycles, computerized stationary exercycles with timers, odometers, and flashing colored lights. The club, which opened March 7, is one of the first of its kind in the nation. It represents a new target group for the fitness industry: children between the ages of 5 and 15. The approach is simple: Convince parents and kids that old-fashioned methods of exercise, known as play, are Out, and newfangled forms of aerobic activity, even for the sandbox set, are In.
``It's a club environment where we're trying to instill lifetime fitness,'' says Kenneth Johnson, founder of Superkids Fitness Centers, adapting for his juniors the latest in workout rhetoric. ``The idea is to bring each child to a healthy level of cardiovascular condition using toy elements to make the exercise fun.''
``Cardiovascular condition'' and ``aerobic activity'' are terms some of the club's youngest patrons might have trouble spelling, or even pronouncing. But they serve as convenient buzzwords for entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on studies that show a decline in fitness among children and teen-agers. The center is a logical extension of a growing kiddie-fitness industry that includes Babycise exercise products for infants and Gymboree workout centers for toddlers.
In its ambiance as a sort of Disneyland of huff-and-puff, the Superkids club may be a child's delight. The interior, Mr. Johnson proudly notes, is decorated in primary colors (``plus purple, turquoise, and neons'') to create a cheerful environment. Exercise equipment, featuring bells, beeps, colorful flashing lights, and bouncing Ping-Pong balls, offers visual stimulation and humor. A learning center, complete with seven Apple computers, serves as a quiet retreat after workouts. A snack bar sells nutritious foods - yogurt, granola, juice, and turkey hot dogs with no salt or fat. (``If kids knew they were turkey, they'd never buy them,'' Johnson admits.)
On Friday evenings the club converts to a roller-skating rink. On Saturdays part of the center becomes a miniature-golf course. And on Sundays parents can join their offspring for family activities.
Already nearly 150 children have enrolled at special introductory rates of $468 a year, plus a $37.50 enrollment fee. Johnson expects 850 young members by the end of the first year. He also plans to franchise the centers nationwide.
Still, despite its obvious appeal, the club raises potentially troubling questions. Among them:
Do young children who fall within average weight ranges really need what Johnson calls a ``fitness appraisal'' - a test to ``evaluate cardiovascular activity, blood pressure, and percentage of body fat''?
Do children of any age need to be taught a new game of tag called ``heart attack,'' in which getting tagged counts as a ``risk factor'' and three risk factors put a player out of the game?
Do centers like these, in their well-meaning attempts to promote youthful fitness, add to the concerns many children already have about the size and shape of their bodies?
A societal preoccupation with thinness has filtered down to elementary-school students, who worry about diets and weight. Eating disorders continue to be a serious problem among young women, with at least four books on the subject being published this spring. And during the past year reports have surfaced of yuppie parents feeding babies low-fat foods, such as skim milk and broccoli, to keep them from gaining too much weight.
Studies showing that children are fatter and flabbier today than in years past raise legitimate concerns. Although television gets most of the blame, Johnson explains that cutbacks in physical education programs, changes in the American diet (``there's just so much emphasis on fast foods''), and computers and video games have also contributed to a decline in fitness.
Even so, do young children really need to be hooked up to state-of-the-art technology in expensive indoor clubs to be persuaded to be more active? This pre-programmed play certainly beats sitting around after school watching reruns of the ``Brady Bunch'' for the eighth time. But it runs a poor second to the spontaneity of climbing trees, playing hopscotch, shooting baskets on the driveway, or riding real bikes around a real block.
Fortunately, if the novelty of the club ever wears thin for its young members, Johnson can always shift to a more mature clientele. Already, he claims, Superkids ``is the envy of adults.''
Grown-ups who are tired of the neutral color schemes and no-nonsense efficiency of conventional clubs, or bored by the mindless monotony of pedaling regular exercycles and running on ordinary treadmills, may thrill at the chance to work up a sweat the way Superkids do: with lights flashing, bells ringing, water guns squirting, and Ping-Pong balls popping.