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Boxing gloves, push-ups and jogging: Would you hire a personal trainer for your six-year-old

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UPDATED:

21:00 GMT, 15 September 2012

On a crisp Saturday morning in September, Jasmine Malem is being put through her paces at a park near her home in Cheshire. She’s wearing boxing gloves and is encouraged to bash away at large foam pads held up by personal trainer Jane Woodhead.

‘Good work, keep going,’ Jane shouts in encouragement. ‘Jab, jab .  .  . left, right, left!’

Jane – who is blonde and fabulously athletic – blows a whistle to signal that the allocated minute is up. Jasmine, pink-cheeked and a little out of breath, but beaming, takes off the gloves, grabs a rope and begins skipping. Star-jumps and hula-hooping follow in successive 60-second bursts. Jane and her whistle show no mercy.

Early start: Trainer Jane keeps a close eye on six-year-old Jasmine's technique

Early start: Trainer Jane keeps a close eye on six-year-old Jasmine's technique

Jasmine is just six years old. Oh, and although it might sound shocking, she is one of a growing number of children who have personal training – the latest trend in the exercise world.

Independent personal trainers (‘PTs’, as they are known in the industry), such as Jane, report a huge surge in younger clients. And now the major gym chains are jumping on the bandwagon.

Virgin Active – which already runs swimming classes for children as young as a year old – has revealed plans to launch personal training for under-16s in response to soaring demand.

Once the preserve of yummy mummies and celebrities, fitness coaching – which costs upwards of 30 an hour – is now becoming a family activity as middle-class parents seek ways to ensure their children don’t add to the increasing numbers of obese Britons.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics in 2010 revealed that 17 per cent of boys and 15 per cent of girls aged two to 15 were obese, an increase from 11 per cent and 12 per cent respectively since 1995.

Projections suggest that without effective intervention, six out of ten children will be dangerously overweight by 2050.

These are facts that Jasmine’s parents, Yana, 44, a teaching assistant, and Phil, 38, a company director, are all too aware of.

Twice a week, Jane, who is also a top boxing coach, works out with Jasmine and her elder sisters Amber, 11, and Jade, 15.

Stretch it out: Jane with sister (from left to right) Jasmine, Amber and Jade

Stretch it out: Jane with sister (from left to right) Jasmine, Amber and Jade

Yana, who also trains with Jane, is keen to ensure her daughters have a healthy attitude to their bodies. ‘We want them to be fit, healthy and strong, rather than being fixated on being skinny,’ she says.

‘I’d like to think they’re not swayed by images of skinny women in magazines. Certainly, at Jasmine’s age, it’s not an issue. If anything, they are learning to equate exercise with fun, feeling good and being healthy, not as a desperate attempt to lose weight.’

Jasmine also goes to swimming and dance lessons, but says she especially loves her personal training sessions: ‘I’m quite shy so I like exercising with my sisters and Jane. I love wearing the boxing gloves because I never do that at school and it’s good fun.’

Amber also goes to dancing classes but says: ‘At school we play netball a couple of times a week and I go to netball club after school on Tuesdays, too, but really it’s just passing a ball and catching.

'Every hour with Jane is one away from a screen'

‘I like being with Jane because she gets us to try new things such as running around obstacles and boxing. She challenges us more than my teachers do in PE lessons at school but not so much that we don’t enjoy it.’

For Jade, however, being healthy is more preoccupying. ‘I never eat crisps or chocolate,’ she says. ‘That’s because Mum and Dad have brought us up to eat the right things. I don’t want to eat unhealthily and undo the good work we’ve done with Jane. And working out with Jane gives me ideas for exercises I can do on my own.’

Yana and Phil admit that hiring a trainer for their children may seem baffling to many.

‘We grew up in the Seventies when children got their exercise playing outdoors on bikes, with footballs, cricket bats and skipping ropes,’ says Phil. ‘When I was a child there were only three TV channels and no computers, so after school I went out to play.

'Now, there are hundreds of channels and children are constantly on the internet or mobile phones. It’s too easy not to go out and play. I suppose it’s sad that we have to be more prescriptive about getting children to exercise but that’s the reality of life in 2012.’

Working out: Jane has the girls doing push-ups as part of her fitness routine

Working out: Jane has the girls doing push-ups as part of her fitness routine

Recent polls have indicated that the
average British child spends more than two-and- a-half-hours a day
watching TV and one hour 50 minutes online. Research has shown that by
the time they turn seven, children born today will have spent the
equivalent of an entire year of their lives watching some form of small
screen, whether it’s a TV, computer or smartphone.

Meanwhile,
it was recently revealed that 30 school playing fields have been
approved for sale since the Coalition Government was formed in 2010,
including some to supermarkets and at least one with outline housing
planning permission. It seems ‘going outside to play’ has never been
harder.

Although Phil and
Yana took up running several years ago, they admit they had grown
increasingly conscious that their daughters’ generation is far less
active than it should be.

‘We’d
been going to the gym, and I joined Yana on her runs outdoors, but the
increasingly long hours I was spending in the car, on trains, planes and
at my desk made me very aware of how sedentary my life was becoming.

‘Then
we hired Jane, knowing that a personal trainer would be a great way to
push ourselves and improve our fitness further, and we thought why not
hire her for the children too. Although we’ve always encouraged them to
be active and make a point of going out for family cycle rides at
weekends, it’s very different for them than it was for us when we were
children. Every hour they’re training with Jane, it’s an hour they’re
not tempted to sit in front of the TV or computer at home.’

There
is no doubt the Malems and their ilk have their children’s best
interests at heart. However, Adrian Voce, campaigner and former director
of Play England – an organisation that campaigns for greater provision
of childhood play – is circumspect.

On the run: Personal trainer Jane puts Jasmine through her paces, as well as her older sisters Jade (second from right) and Amber (second from left) along with parents Phil (left) and Yana (right)

On the run: Personal trainer Jane puts Jasmine through her paces, as well as her older sisters Jade (second from right) and Amber (second from left) along with parents Phil (left) and Yana (right)

‘This is a sign of the times,’ he says. ‘Children don’t stand still. They instinctively want to hop, skip, jump, run and climb. We need to ask why they’re not being allowed to do this in the course of their everyday lives. Although many parents worry it’s not safe for children to play outdoors due to the dangers of predators, statistics show such incidents are no more prevalent now than when they were young themselves. Traffic is the main danger now.’

He says the focus must be on getting better provision for ‘free range’ – natural outdoor – play in parks, for example, rather than throwing money at personal trainers.

‘My worry is that personal training will compartmentalise exercise in their lives rather than showing them how to be naturally active for life. If they are simply given the space and opportunity to play, they’ll get all the exercise they need in a way that’s fun and natural.’

But can we blame parents such as Phil and Yana for doing their best to keep inactivity from their door Physiologist Paul Gately, Professor of Exercise and Obesity at Leeds Metropolitan University, believes in encouraging children to exercise or play sport but has reservations about doing this via a PT.

‘Anything that gets children more physically active is positive, but a broader approach is needed,’ says Paul, a father of four young children. ‘Not all families can afford a PT and it will make them reliant on having someone else to get them moving. We need children to be autonomous so they choose how and when to be physically active, independently learning the routine and discipline of being active for the long term.’

Family fitness: Phil and Yana, left, with daughters Jade, Jasmine and Amber as well as their trainer, Jane

Family fitness: Phil and Yana, left, with daughters Jade, Jasmine and Amber as well as their trainer, Jane

The Malems’ PT Jane, 41, says she is conscious of making exercise sessions fun, playful and safe for the children. ‘It’s important to be careful when training youngsters as their muscles and bones are still developing, making them more prone to injury, so I tailor the sessions accordingly,’ she explains.

‘I often have the Malem girls doing circuit training where they rotate 60-second bursts of boxing, step-ups, push-ups and tricep dips using a park bench. But while I really push Phil and Yana during their sessions, with the girls I focus on co-ordination and teaching them to use the correct techniques.

‘We also do training sessions where we’ll go out on bikes and race each other between lamp-posts or trees, then leap off the bikes and the two younger children will jog on the spot, do star jumps or sit-ups, while I get Jade using her body weight to do push-ups or tricep dips on a park bench.’

Government guidelines recommend children do a minimum of one hour’s physical activity a day to reap proven health benefits – regular brisk exercise greatly reduces the risk of serious health problems such as heart disease and cancer.

While admitting that the instinctive play of his own childhood would be the ideal for his daughters, Phil feels that times have changed and personal training addresses a modern need.

‘We hire Jane to ensure that twice a week our daughters are getting a good run-about,’ he says.

Voce, though, urges caution about becoming reliant on the leisure industry to solve the problem of child inactivity.

‘We need greater provision of parks, public spaces, streets and estates that are play-friendly, safe, supervised and where traffic is controlled. In the meantime, if you have a garden at home or a park nearby, get your children out there.’


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