Slouching around in post-school undress, my 10-year-old son stares glumly at his arms. “I don’t have any muscles, Amma. Why don’t I get muscles?” He then frantically rubs his biceps on the chair in the hope that a knot will show up.
“That’s okay. You’ll get muscles when you grow older,” I reason.
“No, everybody in my class has muscles. Krishan, Rishabh, Tushar… only the girls don’t have muscles. And,” he adds darkly, “and do you know Jay Devnani has aps?”
His unhappy gaze shifts to the remnants of the Cerelac tyre on his tummy. No ‘aps’ there, definitely not. But in the badlands of Class VA, ‘aps’ and rippling arms matter seriously.
It is a buzz of which Mumbai’s fitness specialist Leena Mogre is well aware. Mogre has set up a line of children’s gyms, called Kid’s Gym, at venues that are Treehouse playschools during the day. Her youngest gym member is precisely two years and three months old. What does she do? Skitter happily on the baby treadmill at the Kid’s Gym in suburban Khar.
The oldest member of Mogre’s kid gyms is 12 and has a weight problem. But weight reduction is not the overriding concern at her gym. Of the 10 I meet, three need to knock off some kilos, but the rest are doing a riotous version of the gym enthusiast’s routine. They run from elliptical trainer to rower to stepper; bouts of wild energy alternating with lazy intervals. They then move to chest presses, leg curls, lat pulls and number of other depression-inducing drills with undisciplined abandon. Reps and sets don’t faze this lot.
“You cannot expect children to workout with adult rigour and concentration. They do short turns on whatever catches their fancy. The idea is to get them used to the idea of a gym,” says Mogre, who has designed the equipment at these gyms. Mogre’s goal is to start them early with ideas of body alignment and fitness. The aerobic machines are manual and the resistance machines are hydraulically geared, so no weights are used. The workout regimen rounds off with horsing around on the jungle gym.
One thinks that children get all the fitness drill they need at home, in school and playfields—stamina from playing catch and cook, resistance training from tug-of-war and flexibility from cartwheels. But gyms are a fact of urban life and many mothers who patronize outfits like Mogre’s believe that the sooner you get used to the idea, the better. In fact, numerous adult gyms have vacation batches that cater to children during the summer holidays.
“The reason why adults find it difficult to stick to the gym routine is because it was never an early habit. But they are a big part of the fitness scene now. If children start young, it might not end up being such a chore for them,” says Poornima Verma, whose two boys are members.
Ansh, her 10-year-old son, has been working out for almost two months. He plays basketball at school and is a keen swimmer, but evenings at home are a drudgery. In a typical Mumbai apartment block, the only open space is the car park.
But is Ansh enjoying the gym routine? “The answer is between a yes and a maybe,” he says, giving the matter deep thought. “I like meeting the other kids here and playing on the jungle gym.”
Adult gyms accept members as young as 14, but not younger. There’s good reason why. The epiphysis of the growth plate of the bones develops at a critical rate between 10 and 16 years of age and mindless weightlifting could permanently damage the growth and alignment of bones.
“Any weight training for children would have to be guided and progressive. If you put your child into weight training, there has to be a very good reason for it. The outdoors is always the best option for children. Apart from other things, the gym environment lacks spontaneity and human interaction,” says Dr Pratima Rajan, who has done her MD in sports medicine and is now a consultant at Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital.
While some argue that there is something dismal about a bunch of kids sweating it out on a treadmill, instead of shrieking around a neighbourhood park, mothers at Kid’s Gym feel it’s better than slouching over Game Boys and PSPs. Yet, a majority of parents still prefer the outdoors as a fitness option.
Says Swati Iyer: “It is now being recommended that even the age of preschool be raised so that children don’t get confined in small spaces and routines this early in life. I would definitely prefer that my son play and interact with other kids his age in a playground and learn the skills of survival.”