Should Toddlers Really Take Fitness Classes?

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From the Philadelphia Inquirer

Rose and Lucy Covello, both 4, are seated cross-legged on a mat in the middle of a spacious room with Japanese-style sliding doors.

Instructor Maureen Heil puts her book down and asks the pair to stand. “Stretch your hands toward the sky, pull one leg up.”

The twins reach high, palms together, eyes intent on the instructor, and lift one leg cautiously.

They’re a little shaky, but it’s unmistakable: Rose and Lucy have mastered the tree pose, or vrksasana, in yoga parlance.

“Find your balance,” cautions Heil, who is basing her poses today off of illustrations in 10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle – so far, the girls have completed a “whale pose,” pretended they were dolphins, and imitated the wind to practice deep breathing.

Then it’s on to the next page, and the next pose.

Fitness programs such as yoga classes, Zumba workouts, and CrossFit training were once the turf of harried soccer moms and urban yuppies. But these days, they’re bringing the babies along.

Yet these children’s fitness programs are a far cry from Gymboree classes or even mom-and-baby yoga. Instead, they’re mommy’s favorite workouts, modified for the pacifier set.

And parents, whether worried about childhood obesity and health, or already having to tote their kids to the gym anyway, are eating it up.

The kids don’t mind it either.

“I like doing the downward dog!” said Lucy after yoga class, hopping in the studio. Since its founding in 2005, Yoga Child in Center City has run classes geared toward children as young as 2 at its studio at 903 South St.

Classes run the gamut. For $138 six-week sessions, a child can take anything from a yoga and dance class to yoga arts and crafts, which incorporates “mindful exercises” and yoga journals, said Yoga Child manager Jordyn Cutler.

“Kids are natural-born yogis,” Heil said before class. “And they’re so plugged-in these days that anything that gets them out of the house is good.”

For Mark Nelson, who owns Yoga Garden, 131 N. Narberth Ave. in Narberth, the proliferation of children’s fitness classes are a sign of changing times.

Yoga Garden already offers yoga classes for kids starting at 5 years old. But because of increased demand, Nelson is planning to add new courses geared toward 3- to 5-year-olds.

“It’s very rare to have a neighborhood where you just let your kids run around,” he said. “Society has moved to a place where parents schedule and direct their kids’ activities.”

But should parents be snapping up yoga mats for their toddlers? It depends on the kid, says Mary Lou Gavin, a medical editor for Nemours’ and a pediatrician at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington.

There’s still value in the time-honored tradition of letting your children romp in the backyard – but it’s also important to lead them in “structured play,” said Gavin.

Instructors say that enrolling young children in fitness classes also helps them develop social skills and learn to follow instructions.

Still, Gavin said, some children are simply too young to shimmy their hips at a Zumba session or strike a tree pose in a yoga class.

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