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The Boston Globe
September 4, 2008
By Beth Teitell
"A Treadmill Designed For Kids?"
Treadmills and elliptical trainers for children: a benign way for kids to get in shape - or a depressing statement on what our society has become? That's the question swirling around two new products, Fitness Fun's My Treadmill and Glide-a-Stride, both of which are aimed at kids as young as 3, and promise fun "just like Mom and Dad!" TV remote control not included.
At Henry Bear's Park in Brookline Village, where the nonmotorized, kid-powered machines are displayed in the window, response has been decidedly mixed. Some patrons find them "cute," store manager Melissa Brilliant reports, while others demand, "How can you do that to children?"
At a time of heightened concern about childhood obesity, the treadmill and step glider, which retail from $99 to $120 each, are among a growing number of toys marketed to get kids moving, says Adrienne Citrin, public relations manager of the Toy Industry Association. In 2007, for example, Fisher-Price introduced a stationary bike for kids ages 3-6 that plugs into the television to keep youngsters interested. If manufacturers can make products that help kids slim down and that parents feel good about buying, Citrin says, "Everyone wins."
Or do they? "I wouldn't say one should never consider something like this for a particular child," says Dr. David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life Clinic at Children's Hospital Boston, "but we have to remember that children are not just little adults. Kids' bodies and their minds are not designed to spend 20 minutes on a treadmill.
"It reflects, I think, a misguided mentality," he continued, "where we're trying to make physical activity for children a commodity rather than a natural integrated part of their lives."
But Nicole Tiedemann, a publicist for Fitness Fun's parent company, International Playthings, plays up a different angle. "If mom and dad are running on a treadmill at home," she says, "the kids can do it, too."
And if mom and dad have, er, stopped using their treadmills for exercise and instead turned them into repositories for clothing or books? Well then, the kiddie equipment might end up encouraging the grown-ups, Tiedemann says. "They always say a partner situation gets you more motivated to exercise. This could be a motivational tool not just for kids, but parents."
Sheri Gurock, a mother of three and co-owner of Magic Beans (with locations in Brookline, Hingham, and Wellesley), questioned the products at first, but she's come around.
"It doesn't have to be a stand-in for other types of physical activity," she said, "but in New England there are a lot of months in the year when it's not practical to get outside."
And there's another plus: The kid-size equipment may help keep the children off adult machines.
"We have a treadmill in our house," she says, "and I'm always having to get on [my kids'] backs not to get on it." Gurock keeps her machine turned off, but her children have found the power switch. "I've found them walking slowly on it, but it terrifies me that they might turn up the speed."
Toy-industry analyst Sean McGowan describes this as a "testing year" for gym-like equipment, noting that if the stationary bike and the Fitness Fun products sell well, imitators will probably come along.
Holiday sales figures are months away, but the kids are already starting to weigh in. A recent Thursday afternoon found 3 1/2-year-old Guenevere Miller of Somerville checking out the kiddie workout equipment at Magic Beans in Coolidge Corner. "Can we buy it?" she asked.
She eagerly ran and walked on the treadmill for almost three full minutes. Then she edged her younger sister off the glider, took a few strides, and promptly sat down on the foot pedals. "Push me, Daddy," she said.
Well, at least someone is getting exercise.