You have probably read a lot about how today’s children are more overweight and obese than kids in past generations. But hearing actual statistics about the United States’ childhood obesity epidemic can be shocking. According to data from America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2011, from 1976 to 1980 only 6% of children aged 6–17 were obese. By 1988–1994, this percentage had risen to 11% of children in this age group, and in 1999–2000 it was 15%. By 2005–2006, 17% of children were obese. In 2007–2008, 20% of children aged 6–11 were obese and 19% of adolescents aged 12–17 were obese (ChildStats 2011) (Editor’s note: In 2009–2010, 18% of U.S. children 6-17 were obese, which is not statistically different from the 2007-2008 figures [ChildStats 2012]).

With less emphasis being placed on physical education in schools than in the past, children often are not getting the exercise they need. With little opportunity for activity at school or at home, kids truly need our help (Black 2008). That’s because overweight or obese young people are more likely to become overweight or obese adults—increasing their risk for future health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis. Childhood obesity must not be ignored.

The good news is that you can help deal with this health crisis effectively while also increasing your fitness facility’s profits and raising the value of membership for your customers. Physical activity is the first line of defense against childhood obesity. By implementing healthy, enjoyable programs at your club, you can instill a positive fitness mentality in children who would otherwise be constantly lured by television and video games.

However, getting kids interested in exercise takes more than circle singing time or supervised recess. It requires entertaining, exciting exercise options designed especially for children. Make your fitness facility a place that includes an affordable, safe supervised environment where youngsters can exercise, have fun and learn about good health.

Eight Tips for Youth Programming

So how can you join the fight against this health problem and increase revenue at the same time? The answer is simple: Healthy kids = happy parents, which leads to retention and increased membership. Here are some ways you can successfully integrate kids into your fitness facility.

Tip #1: Create a themed play area. Designate a specific area of the facility, no matter how small, to be used just by children. This special space gives children ownership of the youth program. Dedicating a section to this cause also sends members a strong message about your commitment to helping kids get fit. Stock the play area with inviting fitness-related toys, such as Hula-Hoops, jump ropes and balls. You can take your commitment a step further and help children develop large motor skills by incorporating jungle gyms, a ball pit and obstacle courses. These types of areas encourage creative, energetic play and interaction with other children.

Tip #2: Offer nutrition education. Establish regular nutrition education classes for members with children. Go beyond information on general nutrition: Emphasize nutrition for children at different age levels, and include tips to encourage children to eat healthfully. Offer cooking demonstrations that show kids how to prepare simple, healthy meals themselves.

Tip #3: Make fitness a family event. Offer parent–child or family fitness classes that teach children that physical activity is enjoyable and that help parents to be fitness role models. For example, music and movement classes for younger children and their parents can use parachutes, bean bags and balls to help little ones develop a variety of physical skills. For older children, build on the existing amenities in your club by organizing leagues (e.g., basketball, swimming or tennis)—with parents and children playing with or against each other.

Tip #4: Get kids in the door. Bringing teens and children into your facility is the first step. Offer discounted student memberships for teenagers and/or junior memberships for children as part of a family membership package. For help marketing to this target audience, go to The website includes a toolkit with fact sheets, sample letters scripts for public service announcements and other resources.

Tip #5: Get their friends in the door. Offer youth programs to nonmembers as well. Doing so opens up opportunities for more children to become involved in physical activity, and it gets the attention of a pool of potential adult members who might never have visited you before. Making youth programs accessible to all kids also adds to the image of your facility as a community resource, rather than an exclusive club.

Tip #6: Make the most of your existing amenities. Helping kids doesn’t necessarily require a significant change on your part. Offer sport lessons based on the amenities in your fitness facility. For example, if you have a pool, offer swimming lessons; if you have a basketball court, offer basketball lessons.

Tip #7: Make your facility a place for celebrating. Develop a “birthday party program” where parents can throw birthday parties for their kids during off-hours or in the themed play area. During the parties, organize activities that incorporate fitness, such as relay races or a basketball game.

Tip #8: Get certified. Offer select staff more education in kids’ fitness. American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA) offers a children’s fitness specialist certification course. This course takes a multidisciplinary approach to teaching health-related fitness at the elementary-school level. It’s about giving kids the tools, skills and experience so they can lead a physically active life.

Community Outreach

Your efforts to combat childhood obesity needn’t be confined to your facility. By going out into the community, you can get your message out to even more children and enhance your image and reputation. For example, consider partnering with local schools. Develop after-school fitness programs or offer programs regularly during the school’s physical education classes. In return, request that the school allow you to promote your programs throughout the school and send literature and guest passes home with the students. Additionally, try organizing fitness activities at the playground or park after school, so that children can exercise when they might otherwise be sitting in front of the television or computer. You can also conduct fitness “camps” at your facility during school vacations. Working parents especially appreciate being able to bring their children to a safe place where the time will be spent on healthful activities.

Another opportunity for community outreach is to organize field trips. Invite schools and daycare centers to bring their classes to your facility for several hours or even a full day. Organize kid-level dance classes, swimming or a group basketball game. Offer activities that appeal to both genders as well as to children with limited physical capabilities. These types of field trips can introduce children to new physical skills and teach them that working out is fun. In turn, they will introduce your facility to their parents and friends.

Good Health for All

With the rates of childhood obesity continually increasing, your fitness facility has the opportunity to make an impact on the health of American youth. By opening your doors to children, you can become part of the solution—and as an added benefit, you will likely see an increase in profits over time. Your club can transform from a simple business to a community resource that is truly making a difference. And that makes all the difference.

Resources to Get You Started

Learn more about kids’ fitness with the following resources:

  • Fitness and Kids provides fitness equipment, videos and activities for children.
  • Fitness Beginnings offers children’s fitness, sports and dance videos, as well as yoga mats and kits.
  • Nasco Hands-On-Health offers health education products, including posters, games and kits.
  • PE Central provides information on developmentally appropriate physical activity and education programs for children.
  • US Games supplies physical education games and toys for children of various ages. Products include medicine balls, jump ropes and scooter boards.


Black, S. 2008. Youth—Meet the Expert. Athletic Business (July).

ChildStats. 2011. America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2011.; retrieved August 26, 2012.

ChildStats. 2012. America’s Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2012.; retrieved Aug. 27, 2012.

Valerie Applebaum, MPH, CHES

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