Justin Nieves shifted his weight, swaying back-and-forth to the beat.
“Girls love boys that know how to dance,” he said.
Justin, 8, is part of a weekly kids’ Zumba class hosted by Baptist Health South Florida in Pembroke Pines, aimed at offering kids exercise through games and basic dance moves.
“He loves his soccer, which is very structured and has to listen to the coach’s instructions,” said his mother, Anamary Egues. “But here, he’s doing something different. He gets to let loose.”
Baptist’s class is one of many fitness programs offered by hospitals, parks, community centers and muncipalities across South Florida, teaching kids fun ways to stay active and develop healthy habits early in life. It’s part of a multi-pronged approach to bring down the growing obesity levels of children.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that the percentage of U.S. children aged 6-11 years who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012. The percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese quadrupled during this time, from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent.
At Nicklaus Children’s Hospital’s Doral outpatient center, children ages 4 and up can take a group yoga class to build their strength, balance, coordination and endurance.
“I find it’s not really a competition. They’re not required to do the same as other kids,” said Gema Salvaggio, an occupational therapist who teaches the class. “Each kid works individually and builds a lot of self-confidence.”
The children learn breathing exercises and basic yoga poses, slowly working up to inversions against the wall. Each class includes playtime, where kids play games like freeze dance, and a cooldown with relaxing music.
While some programs teach kids to stay active through interactive games, others introduce kids to more structured workouts.
Memorial Hospital West Fitness Center offers a Kids’ Boot Camp to help kids between ages 5 and 13 stay in shape.
Kids work on circuit training and other activities that keep them constantly moving. Throughout the program, they build muscle and endurance and improve their energy level and focus.
In many cases, children’s health habits are heavily influenced by their parents, experts say.
“Family plays a huge role in the health of kids,” said Dr. Tatiana Perez Ivan, a family medicine specialist with Baptist Health Primary Care. “It’s something that they are born into.”
Programs like Team Fit at the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center in West Kendall aim to get the whole family involved. Team Fit is an eight-week comprehensive program in partnership with United Way and Baptist, which focuses on kids ages 8 to 12 who are at risk of becoming overweight.
The program introduces kids to different sports, interactive games and age-appropriate workouts in the weight room. The program also addresses stressors and other emotional triggers that may cause a child to overeat or even hide food. A sports psychologist talks to the group about destressing.
“At Team Fit, we are all dealing with our own stuff,” said Meg McCarthy, director of Alper’s Fitness Center. “Everybody has issues and we give you the tools you need to deal with your issue.”
Families in the program participate in nutrition lessons to help show parents more affordable options when grocery shopping, and show kids how to control portion sizes and balance their plates with key food groups, like protein and vegetables.
All family members are also given free fitness center membership while the child is going through the program.
Often, parents see that fitness programs are out of their budget.
“It’s hard financially for some,” said Dr. Craig Spurdle, pediatric orthopedic sports surgeon at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. “People don’t know about athletic programs that are free.”
Yet parks all over South Florida include walking and running trails, playgrounds, pools, outdoor tracks, tennis courts and exercise machines, aside from their own fitness programs.
For kids, exercise should be more about fun and play than a strict workout, Spurdle said.
“The idea is to find something you are passionate about. Participate in something for fun instead of following a regimen,” he said. “If you like to skateboard, then go skateboard for a couple of hours.”
The goal is to help kids get to the recommended guidelines of physical activity, which recommend kids and teens have at least an hour of physical activity each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But that can be overwhelming, Ivan said, especially for kids who are not used to regular physical activity.
A good starting point is to decrease the amount of time in front of the TV or computer by walking or simply moving around, Ivan said. Then, they can work up to more rigorous exercise.
“For kids who are overweight, it’s about figuring out what makes them feel good,” she said.
Kids’ fitness programs
▪ Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center, 11155 SW 112th Ave., offers the Team Fit program for kids, ages 8 to 12, screened as overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. Contact Meg McCarthy at 305-271-9000 or e-mail Meg@alperjcc.org.
▪ Nicklaus Children's Doral Outpatient Center, 3601 NW 107th Ave., offers yoga classes for kids, ages 4 and up. Call 786-624-3672.
▪ Baptist Medical Plaza at Pembroke Pines,15885 Pines Blvd., offers Zumba classes for kids, ages 5 to 12. Call 954-837-1350.
▪ Memorial Hospital West Fitness Center, 701 N. Flamingo Road, offers a Kids’ Boot Camp for kids between ages 5 and 13. Call 954-844-7125.
▪ Miami-Dade County regularly offers the Fit2Play afterschool program at 41 Miami-Dade park locations. Visit www.miamidade.gov/parks/.
▪ The City of Doral offers junior jazzercise, Zumba, youth basketball league and tennis classes. Call 305-593-6600, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.cityofdoral.com/.
▪ The Town of Miami Lakes offers a free running program, ballet, jazz, martial arts, as well as archery, baseball, softball, flag football and soccer. Call 305-698-9308 or visit www.miamilakes-fl.gov/.
▪ The Village of Pinecrest offers ballet, flamenco, salsa and hip-hop classes, as well as soccer, fencing, karate, kickboxing, and more. Call 305-284-0900 or visit www.pinecrest-fl.gov/.
▪ The City of Miami Beach offers swimming, ballet, gymnastics and Zumba classes, as wel as intramural sports and a fitness center for teens. Call 305-673-7730 or visit www.miamibeachfl.gov/parksandrecreation/.
▪ The City of Coral Gables offers yoga, Zumba and tae kwon do, as well as pre-teen fitness program, a teen fitness program and a fitness bootcamp. Call 305-460-5616 or visit www.coralgables.com/.