By Hilary Shenfeld Daily Herald Staff Writer
Ever since Anthony Zavala could walk, he's been on the move.
The Cary boy, now 21/2 years old, spends hours each day turning somersaults, walking on a low balance beam, jumping on a trampoline, catching a ball or otherwise being active.
"We don't want to be sitting around all day watching TV. We want to be active," said Anthony's dad, David Zavala, who is gymnastics director at the Buehler YMCA in Palatine and lets Anthony use the equipment.
More kids should be like Anthony, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, which for the first time this year released exercise guidelines for children age 5 and younger. The association says babies, toddlers and preschoolers need to spend up to two hours every day in active pursuits.
Parents might assume their kids are meeting that goal, or even exceeding it. But researchers found that perception can be off, with parents failing to realize how much time their little ones spend in car seats, strollers, bouncy chairs, exersaucers and playpens, or watching TV and playing video or computer games.
"The numbers showed that children were getting less activity in their lives and parents seemed to think they were very active," said Jane Clark, chairman of the kinesiology department at the University of Maryland and head of the task force responsible for the guidelines.
For children this young, the type of daily physical activity matters little, the group said. It should be fun for the child - anything from climbing on a toy to chasing a friend, bouncing a ball or riding a tricycle.
All that exercise isn't intended to create a platoon of pint-size Jane Fondas and Jack La Lannes. But getting an early start will lay the foundation for a lifetime of physical activity, help kids learn motor skills and might even foster brain development, the association says.
"If you don't start out in a life of physical activity, then you're not likely to end up in a life of physical activity," Clark said.
Getting an early start
Starting physical activity at a very young age could keep your baby from joining the growing ranks of overweight children, Clark said. Heavy children have a greater chance than their slimmer peers of becoming overweight adults with an increased risk of ailments including heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Slightly more than 10 percent of children aged 2 to 5 are overweight, a figure that's increased from about 7 percent since a decade ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Clark and other exercise experts say one reason more kids are overweight is because they're spending too much time in sedentary activities instead of running, jumping, hopping and skipping. Until now, however, efforts to set exercise goals have focused on older kids, not on young children more likely to spend the afternoons snoozing than playing on swings.
Movement is great for kids, but pediatrician David Geller hopes the new guidelines don't overwhelm parents. "Parents may feel if they're not giving their kids the recommended 30 minutes or 60 minutes, they're doing something wrong," said Geller, who works in Bedford, Mass., and is a clinical instructor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
Geller said parents shouldn't necessarily time how long their kids exercise, but should try to incorporate activity into everyday life. "If you integrate it into a child now, it will become more natural later," said Geller, an adviser to babycenter.com.
Unfortunately, not enough parents and care-givers stress the importance of exercise, said Rhonda Clements, one of the authors of the exercise guidelines and a professor of movement sciences at Hofstra University in New York. "There's a huge tendency to neglect the child's movement capabilities," she said. "Too many children are developing bad habits very young, where instead of going outdoors and engaging in physical activity, they are sitting in front of TV screens and computer screens."
Not only do parents have to encourage activity, they have to be active themselves, she said.
"If a parent isn't physically active, the child will not be physically active," said Clements, who also is president of the American Association of the Child's Right to Play. "I detest parents who are using strollers through the shopping malls. We're giving children the wrong values."
Common sense activity
In the name of cleanliness, some parents avoid putting their babies down to wriggle on the floor. Those children are missing an opportunity to move freely, experts say. "It's just common sense," said Kim Olczyk, a Deer Park woman who started taking her daughter, Olivia, to a Gymboree tot activity class when the child was 3 months old. "They've got to get some physical activity. They've got to be on the floor and learn to roll around." Now 7 months old, Olivia attends sessions at My Gym, a kids fitness center, where she works on somersaults, sitting and standing. "I can tell a huge difference," Olczyk said. "Initially she was very slack when she did it and now she's stronger."
Another parent, Alla Zilber, believes that children who began movement classes while in diapers were more advanced than their peers later on, both physically and socially. The Vernon Hills mother of three children under 4 years old became such a believer in the importance of activity that in August she opened a My Gym outlet in Schaumburg. My Gym offers classes for kids aged 3 months to 9 years that incorporate singing, dancing, gymnastics and games. "They jump, they bounce, they do rolls. For a child, that's exercise," she said. "I mean, you couldn't get a 2-year-old to do a step class."
At Lifetime Fitness, kids as young as 3 years old can take cardio, boot camp and "KickFit" classes with drill work focusing on speed, power and agility. "I don't really look at it as they're exercising. It's more they're being an active child and establishing good behaviors," said Jill Mitties, program development manager for Lifetime, which has locations in Algonquin, Bloomingdale, Schaumburg and Warrenville.
Fitness on a budget
While formal classes are fine, parents don't have to sign their kids up or spend a lot of money to provide opportunities for exercise. For example, Clark said parents could make "indoor" balls with old pantyhose or wadded up newspaper and tape. Clements suggested simply taking a walk or heading to a playground.
"I'm amazed at those kids who never want to get dirty," she said. "Children should wear play clothes and not be afraid of getting dirty." Sydney Nemtuda, 3, and her 5-year-old brother Nick, get the best of both worlds, taking classes at Lifetime Fitness in the morning, then spending much of the afternoon running around their Algonquin home. "From the moment they get home from school, from 3 o'clock until about 6:30, they're outside playing," said mom Caroline Nemtuda. "They have a lot of energy to burn."
She keeps the kids active both for the immediate benefits and to instill good lifetime exercise habits.
"It's so they know there are other things than watching TV and being a couch potato," Nemtuda said.
There's an added bonus to all that exercise, too. "They're really tired when they go to bed," Nemtuda said. "Which is a wonderful thing."
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