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Watch, kids: Seals flip for fitness at Boston aquarium

A marine program aims to show families that good health can be attained swimmingly.

August 21, 2009|Elizabeth Mehren

BOSTON — With a dazzling display of dexterity, this city's newest exercise diva forged through a workout designed to improve strength, flexibility and cardio power.

Back went her neck. Up went her flipper. Then Ursula gulped some raw squid and slid into her pool at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

"I just really like it," said Alec Willis, a fourth-grader from nearby Saugus, Mass., who was going through the exercise motions with Ursula.

At 80 pounds, 11-year-old Ursula is among the sleekest of the five Northern fur seals that star in Fitness Fridays, an effort to help children make a connection between physical activity and good health.

The Marine Mammals in Motion program opened as Massachusetts learned that close to a third of the state's children are overweight. (Adult obesity is among the lowest in the nation.)

Though school officials said they planned to step up fitness awareness this fall by measuring students' body mass index and serving more healthful meals, physical education programs are being scaled back or eliminated altogether.

For some parents, costly team sports often don't fit into the family budget. Some towns have jettisoned after-school sports for the same reason.

"Kids don't get much free-form play any more," said Frank Koza, an engineer from Derry, N.H. "It seems like kids are either in structured programs, or they are sitting in front of the TV."

Koza, 46, and his wife brought their two sons down to Boston in part to watch the fur seals romp in their new $10-million aquarium addition that overlooks the harbor. Shelly Koza, 41, acknowledged that watching seals climb rocks or do push-ups does not necessarily mean her sons will do the same.

"But anything that is going to grab kids' attention and can make them healthier is a good thing," she said. "If you're saying the seal's name is Isaac and he does jumping jacks, well, maybe the kids will do jumping jacks too."

In addition to exercising, the seals at the aquarium love to groom themselves. The preening is especially impressive in the males, which grow up to 7 feet long and can weigh 600 pounds.

They are "big animals that connect" with people, said aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse.

They also respond to their names, said assistant curator Jenny Montague, who explained that the seals can learn new exercises after about a week of training. The Fitness Friday exercise regimen mimics the seals' normal, unsupervised antics, Montague said.

"In watching their behavior during our program, and what they choose to do on their own, it looks very much the same -- and it looks like they are having a good time," she said.

Fur seals, native to the Pacific, are known to travel from Japan to the Channel Islands off Southern California. Lean and muscular, they can dive 200 to 600 feet deep. Their dense fur -- about 300,000 hairs per square inch -- acts as built-in insulation.

Deb Bobek, director of visitor education, said she hoped the seals at the aquarium would encourage families who visit the aquarium to talk about fitness at home.

In another effort to raise awareness about health and environment, aquarium officials have worked with nutritionists at Tufts University to produce posters that feature the marine mammals. The panels are scattered along the HarborWalk, popular with bicyclists, joggers and casual strollers.

"We want people up and active," Bobek said. The fur seals "need healthy food and exercise, and so do we."

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Mehren writes for The Times.

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