Tenleytown Fitness Club Starts Children on a Healthy Track

The anatomical drawing of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, from the face to the waist, covers a light gray wall in the entrance to the Tidal Elite Performance Center. Near the image are two racks of medicine balls and dumbbells. A 3D human skeleton model topped with an olive green baseball cap hangs on a stand in the adjacent corner. To the right, a set of work-out tools, including two Woodway treadmills, two Precor elliptical machines, and Keiser pneumatic resistance equipment faces four windows. On this particular Friday afternoon, personal trainer Monica Hay, 24, is wearing a burgundy razorback sports tank and black Capri stretch pants. Music from her iPod fills her ears. As he jogs on a treadmill her gaze is fixed on some object outside of the window. But her mind is really on what she says is one of her more challenging sessions of the week – an hour long exercise session with eight to11-year-olds in her Kids Fitness Club.

Children’s lack of physical activity was one of the top 10 health concerns in 2008, according to the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. The fitness club is an effort to teach children at an early age the importance of physical activity as part of developing and maintaining healthy lifestyles. “I want every kid to have a chance to have a healthy lifestyle,” Hay said of her decision to start the club on Wisconsin Avenue in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. She started it in January with three participants. Now, five to six kids regularly participate.

Membership in the Kids Fitness Club costs $100 for every eight sessions or $15 for a walk-in session.

Hay, a native of Columbus, Ohio, became involved in gymnastics when she was four years old. She excelled and went on to attend Western Michigan University on a gymnastic scholarship. She became certified as personal trainer in November 2005. She moved to the District in 2006 and began work as a personal trainer at Sport and Health, Washington’s largest group of health clubs. But her zeal for working with children kept nagging at her. From her junior year in high school to her completion of college, Hay was a part-time gymnastics instructor outside of school for preschoolers to 13-year-olds.

“I realized I missed working with that age group,” Hay said on her decision to establish the children’s fitness club. The Kids Fitness Club meets every Wednesday and Friday, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. A typical routine may begin with a warm-up session of leap frog and bunny hops. “The purpose is to get them in the mindset of exercising as well as get their bodies warm,” Hay said. The session progresses into a circuit of strength exercises such as, dumbbell lifting, sit-ups and balancing on a medicine ball. It also includes a circuit of cardio exercises such as resistant running and agility ladder exercises. One exercise entails jumping off of a small step stool to work the kids’ leg muscles, build their coordination and get a cardio work-out simultaneously. The children love it. “I’ve become more active,” said nine-year-old Fabrizzio Torerro. “We learn new exercises that I’ve never done before.” Elena Mujal, 9, has been a gymnastics participant for four years. She said the club has helped her build up her strength. The children also like the comradeship. “I get to see people that are my friends,” said 10-year-old Ian Brown. “I think it’s a very good class and we do a lot of things sometimes with different equipment.” But the fun doesn’t stop at the club.

“It takes a lot of work,” said Isabel Suarez, 9, a participant in the fitness club who also enjoys exercising at home.

Dr. Nailah Coleman, an attendee in the Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Department and General Pediatrics Department at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said that the regular exercise and physical activity of young children helps them develop bones and muscle, think better and improves their confidence and mood. “I can already see that the kids have more confidence in their accomplishments, which is the biggest reward for me,” Hay said.

She explained that the children want to try more challenging exercises and are more receptive to guidance when they have a higher confidence. Studies have shown that regular exercise can help children perform better academically. When children meet or exceed their goals in physical activities, they grow in self-esteem, said Inez Edwards, association director of youth wellness for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington. “The children develop an ‘I can’ attitude in the classrooms,” Edwards said on how the growth in self-esteem translates into school work.

According to a 2006 School Health Policies and Programs Study conducted by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 3.8 percent of elementary schools supplied daily physical education or 150 minutes of physical education each week.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education suggests that elementary school children receive 150 minutes of instructional physical education every week during the complete school year and amass at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day.

The The FIT (Fitness Integrated with Teaching Kids) Act is currently being considered by Congress. The act calls for quality nutritional and organized physical education and physical activity programs in schools.

The Health, Physical Education and Athletics Department of DC Public Schools has a physical education “pacing guide” that breaks down physical education and activity standards for elementary, middle and secondary schools. Students in grades second to fifth are to “participate in physical activity a minimum of four days each week.”

An initiative such as the Kids Fitness Club can be a great way for parents to connect with their children, said Coleman.

“Any encouragement from adults is very helpful to children,” she continued. “It is important for it to be a family effort.”

Parents appreciate Hay’s expertise in fitness and personable connection with their children. “Monica really understands the physical needs the kids have and she gives them a very appropriate work-out,” Carol Suarez, Isabel’s mother, said.