Will the Rat Race Be Next?

Colleagues who caught a glimpse of the child-sized treadmill were amused. Or incredulous. Or outraged. But when Mira Ghabiel, 5, saw it in the gym of the Downtown Alternative Public School, she exclaimed, "Wow! That is cool! " Little kids on a treadmill?

Yes - and the tiny non-motorized treadmill with a detachable, big-button plastic pedometer is just one of several products for children age 4 to 7 in the First Fitness line. It's manufactured and distributed by Boston-based Aqua-Leisure (aqualeisure.com) and sold here at Superstores. Prices ranged from $59.95 to a sale price of $29.94.

There's also a stationary exercise bike and an air walker that emulates the movement of an elliptical trainer.

Uh, shouldn't kids be running around outside instead of using treadmills and exercise equipment that mimic adult fitness activities?

Physical education specialist Candace Brown at York University thinks so. "I don't think it's appropriate," she says. "Children are motivated to be physically active by the Four Cs: choice, challenge, curiosity and creativity." While a treadmill may be a novelty initially, she says, "I can't see a child sticking to that for very long ... I'd say for about 15 minutes, knowing children." There is a case, to be made, however, in favour of the mini-gym equipment, including the treadmill, in the opinion of York University's Rosie Carusi, manager of fitness and lifestyle programs in the kinesiology and health science faculty.

She believes anything we can do to motivate young children to be more active is probably a good idea. (Statistics Canada has reported that 26 per cent of children under the age of 18 are overweight or obese.) "It's not ideal, but it's better than the alternative - being sedentary," she says, noting that more kids are developing high blood pressure and becoming lethargic and depressed.

"And if the parents are using a treadmill, it can create a culture around workout time and paying attention to our bodies." Aqua-Leisure is best known for its swimming and water toys, and outdoor equipment. The treadmill and other junior version of adult machines are "where the First Fitness line began" a little over a year ago, explains Steve Berenson, CEO of the 38-year-old family-owned company.

"We're learning," he says. "We're looking at items that move forward from that first year that are easier to use and more fun, with more play benefit." Consulting exercise physiologists and focus groups and "listening to what the kids have to say" has led to such new products as giant nylon cubes that are filled with air and powered by kids.

The company is nothing if not innovative, inviting inventor submissions and "great new product ideas" on its website, aqualeisure.com.

Acknowledging that the kiddie treadmill may not be the ideal product, Berenson still thinks there might be a place for it, and junior fitness equipment, alongside adult gear and in gyms.

"Children want to emulate parents," he says, "and what would be wrong with having a program at clubs to show the kids how they can get involved in fitness while their parents are working out?" But enough from the adults - what did the kids at the Downtown Alternative School think?

"It's easy to do," said Sabela Michael. "My foot's making it go." Zalaan Bangash, 5, was taken with the colourful pedometer and the word "Stop." He thought the treadmill was fun and liked making it go fast.

Maya Granic, 4, knew what it was. "I have one of these at my grandmother's place and it's a big, huge one." Trying it out, she said, "It's a little bit hard to do." But she added, "I like this - and I like skating." All the kids wanted to keep using it, even though it took some effort, required a somewhat awkward, bent-over posture and made a lot of noise.

Their kindergarten teacher, Rebecca Dalfen, wasn't impressed.

"It's not a proper way of running," she said. "It looks as if it could hurt the lower back." She added, "I think it's pointless, a novelty. It's just going to sit there and be a dust collector just like their parents' (treadmills)." Her final word on the subject was "ball" - as in, "If you want kids to run, give them a ball."

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