You can hop, skip, jump your way into fitness

It's no sissy sport: Jumping rope burns calories and gets the heart pumping

Health & Fitness

October 05, 2003|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

Our mission," says Jim McCleary, "is to promote physical fitness, not to jump fancy."

McCleary is standing in a small, temporarily chairless cafeteria at Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, delivering a pre-practice pep talk to about 20 members of the Kangaroo Kids, a precision jump rope team he has been coaching since 1983.

His fitness message rings a little off key -- in a perfect-world, we-eat-our-spinach-'cause-it-tastes-good kind of way. These youngsters, ranging from 9 to 20 years old, are in undeniably good shape (and should be since most practice at least four days a week virtually year-round). But it's unlikely any of them reach for a rope because it will help them burn 600 calories an hour or improve their cardiovascular efficiency. These Kangaroos love to "jump fancy."

And fancy has become de rigueur. Jump rope today contains elements of gymnastics, break dancing and jazzercise. It's more hip-hop cool than playground plain, and has about as much in common with yesterday's jump roping as being an airline passenger does with sky diving.

Jumping rope has joined other simple childhood pursuits that have been elevated to microsport status. Witness roller skates (which begat in-line skating) and balloon-tire Schwinns (which begat gravity-defying, X-Games trick bikes). Coming soon: synchronized Slinkies?

The Kangaroo Kids put on some 100 public performances annually -- at the White House, during Washington Wizards' halftime shows, in dozens of area schools.

And they're good enough to have fancy-jumped their way to a third-place finish at last summer's U.S. Amateur Jump Rope Federation national championships.

Not for the timid

The jump rope federation represents 3,300 jumpers on more than 200 teams. Jumping rope "used to be a girly sport or sissy sport. It's not that anymore," says executive director Marian Fletcher, noting that the national championships are carried on ESPN.

Placed in properly trained hands, a strand of rope becomes a magic wand. Poof! That gangly, goofy kid who can't write down a phone message at home or remember to take out the garbage suddenly is transformed into an unflappable stunt machine.

He can leap frog over partners. She can speed jump 150 times a minute, rope twirling so fast that it's invisible. Wrists flick. Knees kick. Jumpers spin, slide and drop down into splits. They whip out their 36-foot "long rope" and play super double Dutch with as many as nine jumpers hopping over eight, undulating, dual-wave ropes.

Jim McCleary is a gym teacher at Bollman Bridge Elementary School in Columbia. He appreciates jump rope as a conditioning tool as well as a sport.

"It's as tough as anything you can do," McCleary says. "It works the heart, legs and arms, every single part of the body. These kids are working all that and keeping up with their steps at the same time."

Kids can benefit

Baltimore is about to get its chance to step lively. Later this month, the Maryland Department of Human Resources, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is set to launch a pilot Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program that includes a jump rope component. If successful, the program will be expanded statewide next year.

McCleary and his full roster of 100-plus Kangaroo Kids have been enlisted to teach basic jumping skills to personnel at several dozen city facilities that provide after-school activities. Those staffers hope to introduce 400 low- income children to jumping rope. They are targeting girls ages 9 to 12.

"There are a lot of youths out there who are not obese, but who still are not physically active," says Lisa Lachen-mayr, curriculum development and outreach coordinator at the University of Maryland, College Park, who's one of the program organizers. "It's a fabulous form of exercise. You can take a jump rope with you. You can do it anywhere."

Lucie Buissereth wants to get everybody in the country jumping, no matter the age or income level. She took a leave of absence from her post-medical-school residency at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx to devote herself full-time to spreading the jump-rope gospel at New York health clubs.

Buissereth, a certified personal trainer, says that adults, no matter how heavy-footed, can easily pick up the sport from scratch. (For those who want to get fancy, the U.S. Amateur Jump Rope Federation recently added a 30-and-over division to the national championships.) She has more than 500 jump-rope clients and wants to open a "jumping gym."

"Jump rope has really become my life," says Buissereth. "Ten minutes of jump rope is the equivalent of about 30 minutes of running. It's a high. The men, they walk out of my class and go, 'I feel like Rocky!' "

Only a handful of clubs nationwide -- and apparently none in Maryland -- offer pure jump rope fitness classes. McCleary says that's partly because there are so few qualified instructors.

But there's also that lingering, namby-pamby image problem -- something ESPN's imprimatur alone can't change.

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