Allison and Andy Cutting do gymnastics and play soccer and will tell you their hearts beat faster when they swim and play catch. They faithfully execute their warm ups and know almost everything there is worth knowing about aerobics -- except how to spell it.
The 5-year-old twins have been exercising at the Towson Family YMCA for the past two years. Their latest endeavor is a "Healthy Kids" class that meets twice a week.
"They think it's the best thing in the world," says their mom, Maureen Cutting. "It teaches them that exercise is fun. They do running and jumping and this co-operative game with a parachute. It's great!"
Maureen and Garry Cutting are among a growing number of parents who enroll their preschool and elementary school children in recreation councils' and fitness organizations' sports programs. They are trying to promote exercise habits that will benefit their children 70 years from now.
Although the notion of shuttling youngsters to structured "play" may seem odd, changes in society in recent decades have eaten away much of the spontaneous neighborhood play that used to accompany childhood.
Single parent families and families in which both parents work have produced a generation of latchkey kids who frequently are instructed to stay inside after school. Fear of crime has caused parents who thrived on pick-up sports to worry about such basic childhood pleasures as bike riding.
Meanwhile, many schools have cut back physical education programs whose efficacy is questionable to begin with, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control.
A widely cited 1987 study by the Harvard University School of Public Health found obesity had increased 54 percent among children aged 6 to 11. The National Children and Youth Fitness Study, published the same year, says one third of Americans aged 10 to 18 don't exercise enough to get any aerobic or endurance benefit. Getting kids fit -- and making sure they enjoy exercise -- is a matter of growing concern to health care professionals.
"I'm a mean Dad," says Neil MacDonald, father of three, physical therapist and director of Union Memorial Hospital's Sports Medicine Centers in Baltimore and in Bel Air. "We don't have Nintendo in our house because I would rather have the kids outside. . . . When we compare young American children to other kids, we are significantly less conditioned and fit."
In fact, it seems that while many adults have responded to the call to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week, they haven't passed it down to the kids. Mr. MacDonald's three sons all began playing recreation council soccer when they were 4.
"The thing I'm concerned about is that kids get an early exposure to athletics, that they get into the routine of exercising on a regular basis," he says. "It's extremely important, though, that the activity be purely for fun. You don't want to give them a bad impression of what a sports-related activity is about."
And for kids, variety is definitely the key to fitness.
"There really are no kids under the age of 10 who should be limited to trying one sport. Every season, my kids move to a different sport: basketball or wrestling or lacrosse or baseball or soccer," says Mr. MacDonald.
Young, one-sport athletes, like soccer players or ballet dancers, often reflect the ambitions of their parents, he says.
"A big problem is parents who are living out their athletic &L fantasies through their children. If that's the case, the children will probably not have an enjoyable experience."
Roy Maskell, a soccer and baseball coach for the White Marsh Recreation Council, recommends that parents of young children shop carefully for sports programs which value fun over competition. He warns against leagues which keep scores, rank teams and attract the type of parent who stands on the sidelines yelling advice.
"Look for situations where none of the children are on the sidelines.
In programs for kids under 10, each child should be doing something almost all of the time."
The National Children and Youth Fitness Study found that most children drop out of organized sports by the time they are 13; many observers believe they were not properly trained when they were younger.
Organized sports for young children these days often bear little resemblance to the way older children play. Instead, the programs consider youngsters' attention span and need for fun.
"I tell parents of my 4- and 5-year-olds that they're going to see a lot of things that don't look like soccer," Mr. Maskell says. "Typically you would put 11 kids on the field on each side and you would see 22 swarm to the ball. That means probably 20 aren't in contact with the ball and aren't learning anything.
"Small-sided, or micro-soccer, means you progress from three against three in a small area to seven against seven in a larger area. Each person touches the ball a lot more. It keeps kids involved and able to practice skills more frequently.