It sounds like the setup for a sitcom plot: A school nurse at Marie Reed Elementary in Washington called up Mint, a boutique health club in the neighborhood, to find experts to lead a presentation on kids' fitness. Personal trainers Lance Breger and Tanya Colucci immediately agreed. It was only after they'd hung up that they realized that neither of them had ever worked with children before.
"I didn't even like kids," says Breger, who figured they might as well try to get some experience before they delivered the talk. So the duo set up a five-week after-school program in the hopes of collecting data and pointers. After being charmed by some adorable smiles, and recognizing how little these students had been exposed to good nutrition and exercise habits, Breger says, "I found my calling."
The experience spurred Breger and Colucci to co-found the Infinity Wellness Foundation (www.infinitywellness.org), a nonprofit organization that brings health and fitness professionals out of the gym and into the community.
More than 4,000 students at 19 Washington area elementary schools have now gone through their WellKids program, which has evolved considerably since that 2008 trial. Sessions are now 16 weeks, the length of a semester. And the structure has been tweaked along the way.
Classes were originally 30 minutes of education, followed by 30 minutes of movement. Or, at least, that's what was supposed to happen. These days, the sessions are broken down into a series of 10-minute segments to keep short attention spans occupied. Nearly everything they do keeps the kids on their toes, adds Breger, who tries to minimize sitting time while covering "moving, eating, stretching and breathing."
And he has a few ideas for how parents can copy WellKids strategies at home to encourage activity for life.
"Always start with a game," Breger says. There's no need to have any special equipment or to reinvent the wheel. The classic diversions, such as freeze tag, sharks and minnows, and red light/green light, are still a hit with kids. If you want to splurge on something, buy a balloon. "You can't hit a balloon and not smile," he explains. Kids can pass it to one another while standing on one foot or crab walking around the floor. They can punch it like a boxing bag. Or they can sandwich it between two of them while they race in a relay. However you use it, he says, the point isn't to compete, but to play, which leaves kids with positive associations with movement.
Not a serious yogi? No problem. Kids don't think of standing like a tree or mountain or warrior as a serious thing, anyway. "It's creative play to get a chance to act out the poses," Breger says. He recommends the $18 flashcards produced by YoKid (www.yokid.org), an organization devoted to bringing yoga to all children. Each 5-by-7 card features a child-friendly taste of yoga philosophy and a photo of a kid demonstrating a pose. In WellKids classes, students each get a card to study, and then they can try to teach the rest of the group. Lying down in silence and practicing some deep breathing is easier after that, too.
Basic exercises, including wall sits, planks, push-ups, lunges and squats, might not sound all that fun. But that's because you've never played Uno fitness, Breger says. Just assign a movement to each color. When students pick a card from the deck, they check the number to see how many reps of that movement to do. (Reinforcing math skills at the same time is a nice side benefit.) Another option is Simon Says, only with all exercise-based demands. These lessons won't feel like work, Breger says, but they sure work on kids.
Vicky Hallett edits the Fit section of The Washington Post's Express.