Center offers fitness program for youngsters

Machines and routines are tailored with children ages 6 to 15 in mind

Business Profile FitWize 4 Kids


Eleven-year-old Brad Hill was walking on a ministep machine while tossing a ball from one hand to the other. It took a lot of concentration, but somehow he was able to talk, too.

"I figured I'd give it a try, and I came here, and I liked it, and it was fun, so I decided to join," he said.

The "here" he was talking about was FitWize 4 Kids, a just-for-kids health club that opened April 1 in Columbia. "The main thing that I like about this is the machines - they're made for kids," Brad said.

FitWize, for ages 6 to 15, is a small but growing franchise based in California that offers child-size fitness machines and child-tailored fitness routines. The FitWize in Columbia, opened by Todd Garner, who teaches fifth grade at Atholton Elementary School, is the first in Maryland.

"I really like the idea of opening a business that involves kids," Garner said. "For a lot of kids, it's about self-esteem. Hopefully, this is a place where they'll want to come and develop healthy habits."

Garner plans to keep his teaching job, so he has hired his father, Michael Garner, as the gym's manager. Todd Garner's wife, Susan Foster-Garner, who works at T. Rowe Price, pitches in when she can.

Foster-Garner said she heard about the franchise at a bridal shower, where she met the owner of a FitWize in New Jersey. Right away, she knew it was the right opportunity for her husband.

"We knew there was a need for something like this," she said, noting the rise in childhood obesity that has been in the news.

"We thought Columbia would be a good area for it," Todd Garner said. "A lot of kids are playing sports, but also a lot of kids are not playing in sports."

If the business goes well, Todd Garner said, he wouldn't mind opening other FitWize franchises. He also would like to add classes such as yoga and cheerleading to the schedule and introduce sessions on nutrition. This summer, he is offering weeklong half-day and full-day camps that will combine workouts with games, puzzles and other activities.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, seven children were working out on machines that ranged from a scaled-down rowing machine to a child-sized seated leg press.

Every 60 seconds, Michael Garner blew his whistle, and the kids moved to the next station. There are 19 stations in all, and the entire workout, 1 1/2 circuits plus warmup and cool-down, takes 45 minutes.

Most of the machines are made by Hoist and are part of the FitWize franchise agreement, but the Garners managed to find a few other smaller-scale machines for their small gym, Todd Garner said.

Coaches are on hand to make sure the youngsters are doing the moves correctly. The Garners attended training sessions that help them guide their young clients through the workouts, teaching them when to breath and focusing on moving slowly, not pounding the weights.

Children aren't allowed to increase their weights until they can do 15 clean repetitions in a minute at the current weight, Foster-Garner said. Working out is serious business, she said, adding, "This is not an arcade, it's not a bowling alley."

FitWize is open from noon to 8 p.m. during the week and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. It is closed Sundays. The cost is $50 a month for one child, $75 for two and $100 for three.

Though parents can leave while their kids exercise, FitWize is not a child care center, Todd Garner said. However, parents do get a three-hour chunk of kid-free time every first and third Friday, when the gym hosts Kids Night Out, featuring a workout and a movie, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Young players on sports teams, such as Brad, who plays soccer, can benefit from FitWize, said Todd Garner, because they will be in better shape. And the gym is giving youngsters such as Aleah Omar, 11, who don't participate in an organized sport, motivation to work out regularly.

Aleah's mother, Amy, said she drove past FitWize one day and "thought it was a great idea." Since joining about a month ago, Aleah has been working out four or five times a week, Amy Omar said. "I really think it's helped her energy," she added.

While Aleah works out, her mother usually runs errands, she said. But on Thursday, she waited with her son, Isaiah, who is 5 1/2 .

"He's dying to participate," she said. "He's just waiting to turn 6."

FitWize 4 Kids is at 6925 Oakland Mills Road, Suite S, Columbia. 443-312-2173.

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