Brian Grasso serves as CEO for the International Youth Conditioning Association and travels extensively throughout the world as a guest lecturer on the topic of youth athletic development and fitness. You can find dozens of free articles, sample programs and resources on his Web site: www.DevelopingAthletics.com.

Over the past two decades, the fitness world has met the needs of a vastly expanding consumer base, creating innovative programmatic offerings in order to appeal to the largest portion of a diffused market. The fitness world has also re-defined itself from a rogue and largely fractured community into a professional and respected industry whose very existence is the cornerstone to a healthier and more physically aware population. The time has come, however, to re-shape our image and programmatic structures again in order to meet the needs of the newest demographic that is not currently being serviced effectively enough by our efforts—kids.

Recent research offers a glimpse into the concerns facing children, as well as our industry’s shortcomings:

  • According to the American Obesity Association, more than one-third of Americans under the age of 20 are currently overweight, and more than 15 percent of that total is considered obese. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that due to the obesity issues facing children, our current crop of young Americans are the first generation in decades who will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
  • Obesity is far from an American problem, however. According to the Australian Society for the Study of Obesity, from 1985 to 1995, the level of combined overweight/obesity in Australian children more than doubled.

The fitness industry is trying to do its part to eradicate these tragic statistics but have thus far been unsuccessful. According to the IDEA Health and Fitness Association 2006 Programs and Equipment Survey, 63 percent of respondents stated that their clubs and facilities offered “specific services for children and teenagers,” yet only 9 percent said that they had members under the age of 18.

Clearly, the fitness industry sees the problem and is trying to address it, but thus far, facilities have not been able to create youth-centered programs that are both a viable revenue stream and keep kids active and engaged.

However, it would be a colossal error in judgment to assume that youth fitness and sport-development camps are a wasted effort for clubs or facilities.

According to a 2004 report in the Wall Street Journal, more than $4 billion is spent annually in the United States on personalized training and coaching for children, which has annual double-digit growth. While that statistic deals primarily with athletic-minded children, club and franchise owners must think long-term about their businesses.

In 15 to 20 years, the more than 30 percent of U.S. children who are overweight will be of adult age and likely will still be suffering from the dreadful effects associated with their childhood physicality. Rather than working to convince or entice them into your club, why not spend the appropriate time and energy to brand your unique services now—and guarantee revenue from a lifetime customer whose financial return you will feel for several decades.

Here are four tips to effectively create viable programs for children and teens:

1. It’s all in the personality of the trainer. Clearly, the personality of a trainer is a key component to successfully working with adults. But what club owners and trainers need to understand is that working with children requires a much more chameleon effort in terms of bonding with prospective clientele. Sure, some adults are shy and others are aggressive, but kids lack the emotional maturity and life experience to feel safe and comfortable in situations where their personality needs aren’t being met to 100 percent efficiency.

Take your best trainer, the one who is the most successful with your members, and try fitting them into a youth-oriented class. If he or she doesn’t have experience working with younger people and knowing how to temper their variable personalities, your program is destined to fail.

2. Know the science of youth development. Whether or not we want to believe it, physical fitness for children is simply not the same thing as physical fitness for adults—and it can’t be packaged that way. Without going into too much detail on pediatric exercise science, the essence of childhood fitness must be congruous with the human body’s natural growth and development. This means that movement and guided discovery have to be at the core of any training program designed for children. Putting children on treadmills, stair climbers or strength-training machines is terribly counter-productive to the free motion requirements of the youthful central nervous system. Children need to learn coordination and ipsilateral (same side), contralateral (opposite side), unilateral (single side) and bilateral (both sides) movement patterns, as well as range of motion through dynamic exercise. Throwing medicine balls, lunging and reaching, skipping, hopping on one foot—these are the essence of quality youth fitness programs.

3. It has to be fun. The moment that exercise goes from fun and exciting to boring and task-oriented, you’ve lost the kids, and they may not be back. Your youth fitness program should be more game-like than fitness-like.

4. The kids are right where you think they are. A common question I get asked by club owners is, “How should I develop a list of prospective youth clientele?” The answer is simple—start asking your current adult clientele. I’d be willing to guess that 80 percent or more of your members have children and would be more than happy to have a program for their children that is housed in the same building where they work out three to four times per week.

The fact remains that club owners who want to secure a profitable and altruistic future for themselves must start looking outside the crowded adult-based market and start thinking about the next generation. Children are the consumers of the future—and they need the most help.