They start as young as 3 months in classes such as Tiny Tykes, Mini Tots and Baby Gym. By the time they're walking, they may have advanced to Waddlers, Super Tots or Adventurers.
Some of these precocious exercisers may wind up as stars of the 2004 Olympics, but for now the emphasis is on fun, family togetherness, coordination and social development.
Your child can join the Junior Sweat Set at dozens of Southern California gymnasiums and fitness centers that offer classes for families.
These institutions won't try to put your 2-year-old in a program that produces bulging biceps or Mr. Universe abdominals. They tend to stress pleasurable movements that children can perform with their mothers or fathers and activities like non-competitive games, simple gymnastics and perhaps dancing and singing.
Many of these facilities feature play and exercise equipment designed for the size and motor abilities of small fry.
Building self-confidence in the child is a primary aim of most instructors. Jeff Lulla, founder and president of Fun & Fit Gymnastics Centers in Burbank, says: "A good movement program for children should be non-competitive and should build a child's self-esteem and provide success experiences."
Parents who put their children in fitness classes seem to appreciate this type of philosophy. One mother has a 2 1/2-year-old son who has been in classes at SuperKids in Hermosa Beach since he was 6 months old. "It is really fun for Jason and me to come to class together," she said. "He loves the equipment and the songs, and I think that the interaction with other children is good for him. It is a special time for us to be together without the usual interruptions."
Specialists say there is no solid evidence that exercise speeds children's physical development or turns them into athletes. But most agree that well-directed fitness classes are generally beneficial if both parent and child enjoy them and they do not create anxiety or boredom in either.
In the face of increasing childhood obesity and findings that U.S. youngsters are deficient in some areas of physical performance, many parents and educators are looking to private exercise instruction.
Some believe that exposure to pleasurable exercise at an early age instills in youngsters a love of movement and fitness that will carry over into adolescence and adulthood. And they say that programs like those offered by organizations like the YMCA and commercial firms can be a leap in the right direction.
Southland fitness centers generally have membership fees ranging from $10 to $30 and offer courses of eight to 10 weekly classes at $50 to $85 per course.
Most programs have a no-obligation trial class available. Many organizations give discounts for enrollment of more than one child and provide the use of their facilities, without charge, for the birthday parties of their child members.
Following is a sampler of fitness centers guaranteed to get you and your offspring moving.
Dave Rabb's Children's Fitness Centers, 10858 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (213) 559-4110; 5520 Crebs Ave., Tarzana, (818) 343-1120. Dave Rabb says he was one of the first physical educators to have a special fitness center for very young children.
Fixtures in his gym are rearranged weekly to provide new challenges and stimulation for students, who may be enrolled as young as 4 months, he said.
Rabb said the key goals of the children's programs, which cover youngsters up to 8, are self-confidence and physical awareness.
Fun & Fit Gymnastics Centers, 1919 W. Burbank Blvd., Burbank, (818) 845-0700. Owner Jeff Lulla and his staff have extensive backgrounds in coaching, gymnastics and dance. Classes for children include Baby Gym, 16 months to 3 years; Kinder Gym, 3 to 5 years; Progressive Gymnastics, 6 to 12 years, and Teen Gymnastics, 13 to 18 years.
In the Baby Gym classes, the parents work with their children on developing motor skills, hand-eye coordination, eye tracking and basic gymnastic and social skills.
Lulla says his company (formerly Burbank Gymnastics Center) emphasizes individual attention, small classes, praise from instructors and grouping of children with similar abilities. He added that a second center will be opening soon in Canyon Country.
Gymboree. Check your phone book for the nearest location. This Burlingame, Calif.-based company, (415) 579-0600, has franchises in West Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, South Bay, northern Orange County, Burbank, the San Gabriel Valley, Westlake Village, La Mirada and Long
Beach. There are 45-minute classes, held once a week, for children 3 months to 1 year, 10 months to 3 years and 2 1/2 to 4 years.
Youngsters play and learn on special bouncing and climbing fixtures, tunnels, slides and a brightly colored parachute cloth. They also sing, blow bubbles and interact with Gymbo, a clown puppet.