Most industries nowadays recognize the incredible buying power of teenagers and go out of their way to appeal to this demographic. Not so the fitness industry, which in the past has ignored this age group. Yet many feel that this is the very market that clubs should be trying to attract in order to instill a lifelong commitment to exercise and healthy eating. Now, more and more cutting-edge clubs are targeting teenagers with innovative fitness classes and healthy-lifestyle programming.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

To reach out to teens, the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City now offers yoga, karate, jujitsu, kickboxing, Pilates and indoor cycling classes exclusively for members aged 12 to 17. According to the Y’s newsletter, the goal of these classes is to provide fitness alternatives for teens who “do not consider themselves ‘jocks’” and to teach those “desperate to look fit how to actually be fit.” According to Mirabai Holland, the Y’s director of fitness and wellness, “Kids who never thought of themselves as athletes try our classes. Like adults, [they] need variety in order to identify what works.” But Holland adds that teens want to exercise with their peers, not their parents. “They want to do their own thing,” she says. “We ask teens what they want, play the music they ask for and find teachers they can relate to.”

“Teen classes differ from adult classes because you have to change the activities more often to keep things interesting,” says Kim Seiber, youth fitness manager for Frog’s Club One in Encinitas, California. “[Teens’] short attention spans require that instructors be innovative and change the pace and props often.” To keep up with her teen participants, Seiber offers diverse programs, including hip-hop, jazz, rock climbing, volleyball, weight training and multisports classes. “I also offer a ‘Girl Power’ camp in the summer for girls aged 10 to 14; this gives them a taste of all our gym has to offer, including yoga, indoor cycling and nutrition. We are trying to encourage healthy habits while opening teens to a wide variety of activities.” Next summer Seiber hopes to host a camp exclusively for teen boys.

To welcome teens to the Pacific Athletic Center in San Diego, fitness director Lisa Blocher created “JV Fitness” and “JV Boot Camp.” Both classes target boys and girls 11 to 13 years old and are taught by a staff personal trainer or group fitness instructor, someone “who is high energy and creative,” says Blocher, and can keep up with kids who are easily distracted.

It’s a Family Affair

To foster the family connection, some fitness professionals who specialize in teen programming invite parents to join in. Pamela Frazier is a personal trainer in McLean, Virginia, who runs a program called “Coaching Positive Body Image” for girls aged 11 to 17 and their mothers.

“We developed this program to foster healthy self-image, establish healthy eating and lifestyle habits and [help participants] learn to negotiate the perils of adolescence in a mutually supportive and instructive format,” says Frazier. Over the course of eight 2-hour sessions, the teenage girls and their moms are exposed to various mental and physical exercises that encourage active participation and facilitate cross-generational communication. “We try to expose the girls to many different types of exercise so they can choose something that they enjoy,” she says.

Frazier also offers after-school workouts for teens, one held in the fall called “Ready for the Holidays” and another in the spring called “Ready for the Beach.” Both classes were named by her teen charges and both utilize cross-training formats with “very hip” music. (“You should consult your teen class about what is hip if you are over 40,” Frazier is quick to add!) Personal training, small-group training and father-son workouts are among the other programs Frazier offers specifically for teens.

When designing teen classes, instructors should be less concerned about structure and more intent on having fun, according to Frazier. “You need to be very flexible in the [class] format and utilize lots of different exercise modes, such as dance, step, stretching, yoga and some weight work with tubes, bands and weights,” she says. “You need to think more about core exercises, because most teens have terrible posture from [wearing] backpacks, slouching in chairs and hunching over computers for hours.”

To deal with teens’ notoriously short attention spans, Frazier says, you need to be “on your toes” all the time. Additionally, she says that teens can be extremely talkative in class and are fiercely competitive. “They will compare who is most flexible, who is stronger, etc.” When this happens, Frazier turns the negative into something positive: “It’s a perfect opportunity to teach team skills and positive reinforcement,” she says.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun

When Kristen DeLeo decided to specialize in youth fitness programming, it was because her own teen years were very trying. “I remember not having a strong sense of who I was and feeling that being liked by boys was of utmost importance,” she recalls. “As an adult, I felt a need to use my fitness expertise to reach out to girls facing similar challenges.”

That’s what led DeLeo to design “ElectriGirl,” an empowerment program for teen girls that is based in Los Angeles. To keep her classes interesting and varied, DeLeo mixes things up a lot. “It’s not uncommon for me to combine hip hop, kickboxing, circuit training and yoga into one hourlong class.” In addition to teaching physical exercises, DeLeo has her young charges set goals and learn team-building skills.

Like her counterparts who target teens, DeLeo has found that there are some special considerations when working with pubescent girls. “The number-one challenge in a class filled with teenage girls is breaking up the cliques that naturally form on day one,” she says. “I do this [by playing] ice-breaker games and putting the girls with others whom they would normally never hang out with.” Another challenge DeLeo faces in her “ElectriGirl” classes is getting participants to shed their inhibitions. “Whether it’s doing a grapevine exercise or role-playing about smoking, it’s tough to get some of them to come out of their shell,” she says.

DeLeo has made some personal sacrifices to become a teen fitness instructor. “When I made the transition to teaching teens, it was apparent that I would have to keep the ‘cool’ factor in mind,” she says. “I have to keep up with the latest in pop culture to relate to [teen girls].”

School Is Out

To extend its reach to local teens, The Fitness Group in Vancouver, British Columbia, runs a school outreach program in conjunction with local high schools. According to program director Krista Popowych, “Each year, we offer to teach classes to the teens either at the schools or in our facility during off-hours. The program is extremely successful, both [at] introducing teens to our facility and [at allowing the teens to] experience other forms of exercise beyond team sports. We offer all kinds of classes, from yoga to cycling to boxing to regular group classes to sport-specific classes.”

Popowych says these types of classes need to be formatted differently when offered specifically for young people. “Teens are typically not as fit as our adult participants, so intensity has to be monitored, with lots of active recovery. Also, because teens aren’t as coordinated, teaching a step class means slower breakdowns and cuing.”

Music is extremely important to teens, which is why Popowych recommends selecting upbeat music that they will enjoy. “It’s also important to create a safe and inclusive class environment to minimize any embarrassment,” she says. Consequently, she urges instructors to consider their own attire when working with this population. “We ask our instructors to wear loose T-shirts rather than have a lot of skin showing, especially when there are boys in class,” she says.

Despite its rousing success, The Fitness Group’s school outreach program has created some challenges. “Some of our [adult] members are sometimes not happy having the rambunctious teens around, but overall, I believe they see it as a great opportunity for the kids,” says Popowych.

Facility management also sees the opportunities the outreach program provides. “We see teens as a potential marketing tool to ensure that we continue to have a good mixture of demographics, from young to old,” says Popowych. “We want our teens to gain exposure to our fitness facility environment so they can see that exercise can be fun.” u