Health & Fitness

How to get your kids off the couch? Try Zumba and after-school fitness programs

Dahlia Harris 10, (green shirt), does the Zumba dance at summer camp at the Dave and Mary Alper JCC in West Kendall. Nutritionists and fitness experts from Baptist Health South Florida work with the students to get them in shape.
Dahlia Harris 10, (green shirt), does the Zumba dance at summer camp at the Dave and Mary Alper JCC in West Kendall. Nutritionists and fitness experts from Baptist Health South Florida work with the students to get them in shape.

Exercise can be a scary word, even to teenagers.

But with childhood obesity skyrocketing into the realm of an epidemic globally and across the country, doctors, fitness experts, dietitians and nutritionists say it has never been more critical to keep kids moving.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012, the latest statistics available, more than one-third of children and adolescents in the United States were overweight or obese. Overweight is defined as having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water or a combination of factors. Obesity is defined as having excess body fat.

One way to thwart extra pounds, raise heart rates, improve musculature and burn calories is for kids to join exercise programs.

This summer, Baptist Health South Florida has partnered with Miami-Dade summer camps to offer free exercise classes. At Memorial Hospital West Fitness Center in Pembroke Pines, instructors are providing a variety of calisthenics at Boot Camp Kids. Next month, Fit2Play, a joint program between UHealth — University of Miami Health System and the Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department, will start its seventh year.

A study conducted by Sarah Messiah, Ph.D., research associate professor of pediatrics at UM’s Miller School of Medicine, has found that the Fit2Play after-school program offered in many county parks is “highly effective” in improving the health of kids and reducing and preventing childhood obesity and other health risk factors.

Messiah, who works mostly with middle school students, has seen a pattern where kids become so sedentary and out of shape that their muscles atrophy. When tasked with running down a street, they look like they ran a marathon, she said. Messiah has seen kids whose lack of balance and coordination has led to broken ankles from a simple set of jumping jacks. That’s why classes like Fit2Play are so critical, she said.

“The ultimate irony of obesity is we know the cure. It’s not cancer, it’s not HIV. It’s a matter of being healthy, being active and being able to burn off those extra calories we put into our bodies,” she said.

Dr. Jose Vazquez, an internist with Baptist Health Primary Care, called obesity a “health hazard” and said it has been considered a disease since 2013. To parents who may be sedentary, Vazquez suggested enhancing an evening of watching television with exercise competitions during the commercials.

“Make it fun for the kids. Who can do the most sit-ups or push-ups during those two-minute commercials?” he said.

Vazquez noted obesity is a precursor to a lot of diseases: diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and even depression. He reiterated that obesity is a preventable disease with regular exercise, as well as improved nutrition.

Sonia Angel, coordinator for the Diabetes and Nutrition Center at Memorial Regional Hospital, said parents need to cap sedentary activity (excluding homework) at two hours a day. Additionally, kids need to exercise a minimum of one hour a day every day. Angel, who has been counseling adults and children for more than 20 years, said that 90 percent of kids who are referred to her are already considered obese.

“Ten years ago maybe I would get one or two kids referred to me per month. Now I am getting two to three per week,” she said.

The information is out there, she said, but often people don’t know how to interpret it. For example, she has parents who didn’t realize their children were pre-diabetic and already obese. Another problem is a high intake of processed foods and sugary drinks.

“If you’re playing soccer in the sun two hours a day five times a week, drinking a Gatorade is not going to be an issue,” whereas sitting at a computer for hours and ingesting 40 or 50 grams of sugar is a problem, she said.

Portion sizes are another problem that Angel is seeing on a regular basis. Kids don’t need a cup of rice and an eight-ounce serving of protein — try half of that. And unless the youth is going through puberty, four cups of pasta is also too much.

“One thing I target in my counseling is you have to get the whole family involved. It’s not a mom problem or a kid problem — it’s a family problem,” she said.

For 14-year-old Bianca Hong, taking the high-energy Zumba class is so much fun you actually forget that you’re exercising, she said. Plus, it’s a great way to start the day. She feels the same way about dancing, another pulse-raising activity that helps keep her fit.

“I don’t even think of it as exercise. I think of it as doing something fun,” said Bianca, who will be a ninth grader at Coral Reef Senior High School in the fall.

Bianca said she usually pays attention to what she’s eating. She knows a banana is natural, and a better food choice than cookies or potato chips. However, the teen added she will opt for junk food from time to time because she knows through Zumba and her dance class she can work off the calories and “it won’t hurt me.”

An earlier version of this article had an incorrect reference to Bianca Hong. She attended the Zumba class offered by Baptist Health South Florida, not Memorial West.

Getting Your Child in Shape

Boot Camp Kids

Memorial Hospital West Fitness Center, 701 N. Flamingo Rd., Pembroke Pines

Tuesday and Thursdays from 4-4:45 p.m.; Saturdays, 10:30-11:15 a.m.

Contact: 954-844-7125.


Joint program between UHealth and Miami-Dade Parks. Begins Aug. 22 and takes place in 30 Miami-Dade parks. Runs from 3-6 p.m. every day after school.

Zumba Kids

Children ages 7-12

Baptist Medical Plaza Pembroke Pines,15885 Pines Blvd., Suite 130, Pembroke Pines

Thursdays 5-6 p.m.

Contact:; or call 786-596-3812