After managing a coed fitness facility for four years, Kelly Walsh-Hodgson opened a 5,000-square-foot health club near a new housing development with many young familes. To serve a need in her community, she designed her facility to allow mothers and their children to work out in a time-effective environment.

“The rising childhood obesity rates are staggering,” says Walsh-Hodgson, owner of Fitness 360 — For Women in Ontario, Canada. “How could I not do something to change that? I realized there was an increasing need to have a club that caters to moms and their children.”

From children's gyms inside health clubs to stand-alone studios, kids' circuit training is becoming a nationwide trend as the popularity of circuit facilities for adults trickles down to children. The number of health club members who are children has more than tripled over the last 20 years to reach 4.6 million. Children now represent the second-fastest growing health club demographic after the Baby Boomers, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. Clubs are courting this growing market by going beyond the traditional child care rooms and offering programming and equipment specifically designed for their pint-sized members. However, as with any circuit training facility, safety, supervision and motivation come into play.

Close Supervision

In the 20 years that Wayne Wescott, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA, has researched children's circuit training equipment, none of the children studied reported any major injuries. He attributes the low injury rate to the close supervision of children using circuit equipment.

“We don't like to see any more than one instructor for every five students for good results and no injuries,” he says.

At Fitness 360° — For Women, one personal trainer supervises up to six children during the scheduled circuit training classes, Walsh-Hodgson says. If a mom belongs to the club, she pays an additional $15 to $20 per month for each child to work out, and if she's not a member, she pays $25 to $30 for her child's membership.

Coaches stay with the children throughout the entire circuit at the Kids Health Club in Homewood, IL, to help them lift weights properly and understand which muscles they are exercising on each machine. The fee for a monthly membership is $55 per child with a discount for families with more than one child, Alsberry says.

“The coaches are always motivating them and cheering them on as they go through the circuit,” says co-owner Vernard Alsberry Jr. “We hope that when they get older, they will be able to understand exactly what they're doing when they go into a fitness center as a young teen.”

Safe Strength Training

While some parents may be concerned that weight training at a young age can damage growth plates, many studies have shown that lifting weights has no detrimental effects on children, Alsberry says.

One such study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research demonstrated improvements in strength and endurance for 7- to 9-year-old boys and girls who worked out with child-sized weight machines and medicine balls for eight weeks. Both the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics also support children's strength training programs that are appropriately supervised.

“There's never been a case in medical history where strength training has caused damage to bones,” Wescott says. “It doesn't impede progress — it enhances it. A study showed that 9 year olds who don't strength train had a 1.4 percent bone mineral density and 9 year olds who did simple basic strength training had 6.2 percent.”

Safety is still a concern when working with children, however, and it's important to carefully monitor the amount of weight kids are lifting during each session, says Andy Degen, owner of JAAC'D Up Sports in Hallandalle, FL, a 2,650-square-foot fitness facility for kids.

“Real weight training shouldn't start until the kids are 13 or 14 years old,” he says. “But as long as the kids know that they should be doing light weights and a lot of reps rather than heavy weights, it should be safe for them.”

Circuit training equipment that is specifically designed for children makes weight lifting safer for kids, says David Stempler of World Gym Wantagh in Long Island, NY. The center recently opened two new rooms for children's fitness as part of a major renovation.

“If you put kids on adult equipment, it's a problem,” he says. “Our children's equipment is too small for adults, and the movements are set up so that it would be really hard to hurt yourself because there's no cables or belts.”

Keeping Fitness Fun

Children's circuit training facilities not only face the challenge of keeping their kids safe but they also provide a fun and high-energy environment for kids.

If you walk into the 2,500-square-foot Kids Health Club in a south suburb of Chicago, you're likely to see children between the ages of six and 16 swinging hula hoops around their hips, jumping rope or working out on one of the kid-sized hydraulic machines in a circuit. The circuit is set up similarly to the Curves located in the same strip mall, said Vernon Alsberry Jr., who co-owns the center with his wife, J. Diane Adams-Alsberry, a physical therapist. The children alternate between 40 seconds of strength training and 40 seconds of cardio, but unlike the women's circuit training facility, the equipment is designed specifically for children.

To raise their heart rates, the kids perform dance moves, run back and forth to an interactive sports wall or participate in a virtual boxing match.

“Doing the circuit by itself can be boring at times,” says Alsberry, a physical therapist assistant who learned about the benefits of strength training as a high school football player. “We searched for interactive exercise modalities because kids love to play games, and we want them to have fun.”

Children's circuit training facilities can help children lose weight and begin the lifelong habit of fitness by introducing resistance training to them at a young age. To create a successful program, however, clubs can't simply buy child-sized equipment, place it in the same circuit for months on end and expect kids to get excited about working out.

While children need consistency and structure, they also thrive on variety, says Steve Ewing, a former professional dancer who owns Action Kids Fitness Center in Placentia, CA, with Sonya Rikhy, a personal trainer with an MBA in marketing.

“If you give children a program of variety and excitement, they'll continue to work out, and if they enjoy it, they'll do it for a long time,” Ewing says. “If they're having fun, they don't realize how many calories they're burning. The children who come to our club want to come back, and once they get here, they don't want to leave.”

Small prizes like frisbees, T-shirts and water bottles can also motivate children to exercise, he says. The center's 200 children earn points for healthy eating and finishing the circuit, and then can apply these points to rewards.

“When they go in and finish the circuit properly, they get a ticket that they can use to buy toys,” Rikhy says. “It gives them a sense of accomplishment and instant gratification.”

Improving their strength and speed can be enough of an incentive for some of the children to continue circuit training. Alsberry's Kids Health Club tracks the number of situps and hip extensions the children can do during each session and how much resistance they can handle on the machines. To demonstrate progress, trainers measure the children's waists and chest rather than weighing them. The 11- to 13-year-olds are the most motivated and dedicated members at the club, he says.

“At that age, kids begin to see that they're not in shape and image becomes very important,” he says. “They see how many reps they can do each week, and we monitor how well they're doing. When they're finished, they fall down on the bean bags and call their moms on their cell phones.”

Turning exercising into a game also works well for Degen, who is not only opening his own kids' sports center but also works as the athletic director at a local school and runs a summer camp.

“I'll have them climb a mountain or the Empire State Building on the Stairclimber or see how many situps they can do in a minute,” he says. “I'll also have them compete against each other, but at the end, I always let them know that they are all winners.”

After watching the number of children going out for sports drop off at his school, Degen realized how important it was to create a place where children could safely exercise.

“We're in much better shape than our kids, and that's scary,” he says. “One study said that eight out of 10 kids were out of shape.”

Alsberry and his wife's physical therapy practice got so many referrals from physicians concerning kids who were overweight, that they decided to do something about it. In only a few months, they signed up as members 75 children from overweight kids to student athletes looking to improve their agility, speed and strength.

“Our concept is to make the kids more health conscious, and with society changing, we want them to understand why it's important to be healthy,” Alsberry says. “The kids tell me how much they love it, and we see smiles when they leave and smiles when they come in every day.”

Tips for Running a Successful Children's Circuit Training Facility

  • Make it fun for the children

    Kids have short attention spans and can get bored easily. By turning exercise into a game, offering rewards and getting their heart rate up with jump ropes and hula hoops, club owners can get kids excited about exercise so they want to come back again and again.

  • Keep the line of communication open with parents

    Before even beginning the exercise program with the child, try to find out the parents' goals. Then track the child's progress from week to week. If the parents drop off their children at your center, make it clear to them that your club is not a babysitting center and the children are there to exercise.

  • Invite local schools to visit your facility

    With elementary schools cutting their physical education classes from once a day to once a week, children's circuit training facilities can serve a need in the community. Tap into these schools and invite the kids to visit your facility for a day.

  • Offer programming for the parents or partner with a nearby club

    By offering equipment and programming for both parents and their children, you can help them to improve the health of their whole family rather than just the child. Consider offering prenatal or postnatal classes, creating a women's circuit training studio within your club, or partnering with a women-only facility.

Children's Circuit Equipment Manufacturers

If you're looking to expand your club's programming for kids or open your own children's circuit training facility, check out this list of some of the manufacturers of circuit training equipment designed specifically for children.