Louis is a pro in the gym, and he has the six-pack to show for it. During his weekly workouts, he will start with three rounds of 10 burpees, press-ups, pull-ups, jump-rope skips and lifts with a weighted medicine ball to increase his core strength. Nothing unusual in that, you might think – except that Louis is six years old.
A generation ago, playing and running around were the only activities considered necessary to keep children fit and healthy. Now a growing number of national gym chains, including Virgin Active, Better Gyms and David Lloyd, are offering children’s memberships to cater to parents panicking about soaring child obesity rates.
According to a new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Britain has the highest obesity rates in Western Europe. And one in five children start primary school overweight or obese, rising to more than a third by the time they leave, according to Public Health England.
Like many parents, Louis’s father, Daniel Herman, a company director who runs supplements company Bio-Synergy, and his wife, Jo, a primary schoolteacher, believe it’s important to get their two children, Louis, six, and Betsy, eight, into fitness routines as soon as possible.
Pumping iron: Ten-year-old Leo, bottom, goes to the gym with his mother
Daniel, 43, from Finchley, north London, says: “When I was a child, I got back from school and would get on my bike and ride around the suburbs with my friend until 7pm. I’d come home when I was hungry. But now there’s so much traffic on the road that I don’t think that’s possible for kids today.
“The other big change is that when I was growing up, there wasn’t much TV. Plus there seems to be less structured sport in schools. It feels that if you want your kids to be fit, the onus is very much on the parent to do something about it. So now I pay a bit extra on my gym membership and Louis comes with me at weekends.”
Yet even with the threat of heart disease and diabetes on the horizon for the next generation, it’s still hard not to raise an eyebrow at the thought of children pounding away on machines indoors, rather than running around in the fresh air. Could there be another reason that children, especially teenagers, are so keen to sign up – to get Instagram-worthy gym bodies that attract likes, rather than improve fitness levels? That was the question asked when pictures recently surfaced of David Beckham’s 12-year-old son, Cruz, struggling to bench-press a heavy weight in a gym.
Mother-of-two Hayley Sinclair, 42, visits the gym with 10-year-old son Leo. While she is a personal trainer by profession, she says there are lots of mothers in her circle who want their kids to be gym-fit at an earlier age. Hayley says she can vouch for starting children younger because her older daughter Maisie, now 15, lost her puppy fat when she started going to the gym regularly at the age of 12. Now Leo also performs kettle-bell lifts, box jumps, dead-lifts with a light bar, squats and crunches – and Hayley says he is proud to have the muscles to prove it.
But though Hayley, who runs limitlesspersonaltraining.com in Barnet, north London, believes weight training is no different to children running and playing in the park, she has detected a shift. “These days, boys don’t want to look weedy or wimpy. They want to look stronger sooner, like men. Now you see groups of older boys coming to my gym after school. That didn’t happen five years ago.”
Psychologist Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, is unhappy about the focus on appearance that going to the gym can encourage. “When children start staring into mirrors while they work out, I think they are more likely to start comparing body parts. When it comes to working out, boys in particular can be prone to getting hung up on their physique.”
Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, also says he is “dubious” about gyms that sign up children. “This looks like a marketing opportunity. Children should be integrating exercise into their daily routines, or getting exercise outside with their parents.”
It also seems that parents are increasingly forking out cash – sometimes in the region of £25 on top of their adult gym memberships – because they worry their children are not getting the exercise they need at school. The latest research shows that, by secondary school, girls in particular feel marginalised if they are not deemed to be “sporty”.
A study last week by Women in Sport of 26,000 pupils showed a sharp drop-off in activity as girls get older. By the ages of 14 to 16, a quarter described themselves as “not confident” doing PE compared with nine per cent of boys. Only 45 per cent of girls saw the relevance of PE to their everyday life, compared with 60 per cent of boys. There is also a need for more qualified PE teachers in secondary schools to make sure all pupils get their full complement of physical exercise, says Tam, whether they’re good enough to be picked for school teams or not.
While kids’ gym memberships may be one way to head off unhealthy weight gain, Paul Gately, professor of Exercise and Obesity at Leeds Beckett University, believes the focus is “too narrow. We need more well-rounded solutions. Parents shouldn’t forget that taking kids to the park or going out for a bike ride is absolutely free. All the research shows that young people would rather be outside spending time with their families. There are lots of other opportunities out there to exercise that don’t cost a penny. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be looking for this kind of solution in the first place.”