WINFIELD - In many ways, those Wednesday after-school sessions at Winfield Elementary School resemble any other aerobics class.
The participants gyrate to the beat from the boom box in front of the gymnasium and the commands barked by the instructor.
But there is a definite difference here.
These participants are not the young to middle-aged women who dominate the ranks of most aerobic, jazzercise and other fitness classes set to music.
They are Winfield students. The youngsters range from kindergarten age through fifth grade.
And, this is only one of many aerobics programs that have sprung up at elementary schools across the county in the past few years.
The Winfield program, and similar ones at nine other local elementary schools, are run by Heartlight Aerobics, a company that produces and operates children's aerobic dance programs.
Karen Boger, a resident of Winfield and Carroll director of Heartlight the past two years, supervises these activities. She herself conducts the aerobics classes at Winfield and Westminster Elementary schools and at St.
Johns' Catholic School in Westminster.
The classes are usually funded through the respective schools' parent-teacher associations or, in the case of Winfield, the local recreation council.
Childrens aerobics have gained popularity with the growing awareness that the often sedentary lifestyles of many youngsters leave them not only physically out of shape but, more importantly, at risk for heart and other serious physical problems later in life.
Ironically, this concern arises at a time when adult physical fitness is a national growth industry.
Earl Hersch, county Board of Education physical education supervisor, sees disturbing trends.
He said achievement scores on physical fitness tests given regularly to county fifth- through ninth-graders and sporadically to younger age groups, are steadily declining.
"Test scores on cardiovascular ability are down. Arm and upper-body strength, compared to 10 years ago, are also down," Hersch said.
"Most of (the children) watch TV, and that's it. There's no question they need exercise."
Boger sees her program as a way of reversing these trends.
"It gets children moving instead of going home and watching TV or playing video games," she said. "Everybody needs cardiovascular exercise."
The Heartlight Aerobics program, she said, is geared carefully to arouse children's interest in physical fitness, as well as to produce the necessary conditioning.
Not surprisingly, the music is carefully tailored to the youngsters' interests.
Ironically, some of that very same music that mesmerizes children in front of TV screens for seemingly endless hours of indolence is used here to get them moving again.
The selections include works from New Kids on the Block, Bruce Springsteen and other current pop music stars, plus jazz, cha-cha and such children's songs as "Under the Sea," from the Walt Disney movie,"The Little Mermaid."
The steps, unlike those in adult aerobics where the participants move about on their own, sometimes allow the youngsters to dance in lines, circles, or with each other, generating more interest, Boger said.
The classes start with slower songs, then move on to rockers such as Springsteen's "On the Dark Side" midway through the one-hour sessions.
At that midway point the children are told to count their heartbeats and reminded that their hearts are beating at maximum efficiency.
"We show them they are working their hearts. We tell them we're teaching them aerobics for their personal health, and we emphasize the heart," Boger said.
The music then slows again, ending fittingly with Neil Diamond's ballad, "Turn on the Heartlight."
Boger said the classes, which usually number about 30 children, are popular and that there is a waiting list at some schools.
The only problem, she said, is the lack of interest from boys, adding that they generally make up only about 20 percent of the participants.
"But they need the exercise, too," Boger said.
She said she believes aerobics would also be useful in middle and high schools.
"There's a big accent on fitness, and we show them that fitness is fun," Boger said of the popularity of her aerobics.
Kathy Hamblet, of Winfield, whose daughter and son are both enrolled in the program, describes the aerobics as "work without being work."
"Any exercise they can get these days is good," she added.
Winfield Principal Raymond Mathias said the aerobics classes are a useful addition to the physical education program.
"It provides good help with motor development and the cardiovascular system," he said.
Even at these young ages, regular exercise is important in order to establish a healthy lifestyle, said Marjorie Lohnes, health supervisor for the Board of Education.
"The sooner we get children to practice healthy behavior, the better the chances that it will become a lifetime habit," she said.