KIDS WITH PERSONAL TRAINERS
One-to-one fitness workouts for kids? No longer the preserve of A-listers, Dubai’s middle-class families are doing it too, says Peta Bee
Jacob Mellman is grappling with the TRX Suspension Training device that is hooked on to a tree. He’s already done repetitive triceps pulls and chest press exercises for 90 seconds but Hilary Burbidge, his personal trainer, is encouraging him to keep going for 30 seconds longer. Next up, she says, are 50 squat jumps, then 40 single-leg squats each followed by a short recovery run. Jacob’s arduous session lasts just over an hour, during which time he packs in burpees, push-ups and killer bear crawls through the woods.
It’s an impressive workout for a crisp Saturday morning when most of his friends are still in bed but all the more so when you consider that Jacob is only nine years old.
Hiring a personal trainer for your children is no longer the preserve of the rich and famous. In fact, the primary-school set is among the most rapidly growing sectors of the personal training market as parents try to coax their children away from the iPad or computer and into their running shoes. If it seems there’s a degree of paranoia involved in the decision to call in an expert, it is easily justified.
We hardly need reminding that today’s children are fatter and less fit than previous generations. Experts suggest that five to 18-yearolds do at least an hour of physical activity a day, some of which should leave them breathless and sweaty, and on three days a week it should include muscle-strengthening moves such as press-ups and bone strengthening activities such as running.
Most fall woefully short, with UK statistics suggesting that children are doing an average of 24 minutes of physical movement there a day. In the UAE, just one in six children get 60 minutes of exercise a day.
So it is that a growing number find themselves under the guidance of the likes of Burbidge, who trains more than 30 children, most of whom are under 13. She says the demand for her services is fuelled by “parents being worried their children aren’t doing enough and don’t get outside very often” and that there are waiting lists to
join her ranks of individual junior clients and to take part in her weekly hardcore group in London.
The picture is pretty much the same almost across the world. Ian Groves, the director of the UK National Register of Personal Trainers, says that personal trainers for juniors are in huge demand. “One trainer I know has clients who are three to five years old,” he says.
“Most parents are going down the trainer route either because they are concerned about some element of their child’s body shape or they would like to give them the competitive edge in a particular sport.”
The trend is visible in the UAE as well, where parents are relying on personal trainers for children who are not eating well or exercising daily.
For Juliette Mellman-Jones, Jacob’s mother, the pull was that her children – Evie, 11, is also trained by Burbidge – would get regular slots of activity to boost their overall fitness. Her work as a lawyer means she gets little time to exercise and although her husband “is big into fitness and does triathlons” in his spare time, they chose to hire an expert who would make workouts fun.
“They work on different parts of their bodies with a lot of exercises
‘Children respond best to a broad range of activities, much wider than any gym can offer’
and, although they are set goals, it’s noncompetitive,” she says. “Jacob gets angry with himself when he can’t do 10 push-ups but enjoys getting stronger. Evie doesn’t do a great deal of sport at school and just loves the workouts being outdoors.”
Trainers, some of whom charge up to £60 (Dh360) an hour for their junior services, say fitness-mad parents are behind the boom to get their children in shape. UK-based David Marshall, known as the Bodydoctor, has a client list that includes Kate Moss, Rachel Weisz and Sophie Dahl, but says that it is not just A-listers who hire him to get youngsters into shape.
“A few of the kids I train have parents who are off the radar in terms of their high profile, but I’m also working with kids who are at local primary schools to teach them the basics of fitness and movement,” he says. “Most of the PE initiatives at British schools are rubbish and it’s understandable that parents are starting to get worried.”
Josh Salzmann, who has trained Angelina Jolie, Kenneth Branagh and Hugh Jackman, says he has regular clients who are not even of secondary school age. “Some are sent by their parents because they are overweight and they dread coming at first,” he says. “But the thing with kids is to make it fun, to get them to enjoy working out so that they want to do more.”
Children’s fitness is seen as a lucrative trend within the personal training industry. A report last year in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal predicted that it will become a major commercial focus over the next 10 years. Moneyed parents are not just forking out for trainers but expensive gym memberships and block-booking fashionable workouts too.
In New York, the chic SoulCycle spinning studio has a waiting list for the new SoulTeen classes that cater specifically to the 11 to 18 age group. Rich Upper Eastsiders think nothing
of paying $42 (Dh154) an hour for their daughters – it’s mainly girls who flock to the sessions – to stay in shape.
Junior circuit-training sessions are also booming with the notoriously tough CrossFit group offering CrossFit Kids at venues around the UK. For adults, CrossFit involves such horrors as dead lifts and handstand push-ups performed to exhaustion and although the children’s regimen is scaled down, the exercises include squats with kettle bells.
What do experts make of the attempts to draw children into the adult world of working out as a means to an end – that end being weight loss? Such approaches are undoubtedly gaining credence, with endorsements from prominent organisations; even the American Academy of Paediatrics has switched its thinking to say that strength and resistance-training for children and adolescents is fine provided they have proper supervision.
Paul Gately, a professor of exercise and obesity at Leeds Metropolitan University, is less certain. Parents should not be berated for doing what they think is best for their children, but he is doubtful about long-term benefits. What you get when you hire a children’s trainer, says Gately, is “a one-dimensional, highly mechanistic way of tackling a problem,” and it can backfire. “What we know about children from research is that they respond best to a broad range of skills and activities, much wider than any gym or personal trainer can offer, and that they work better in groups than one-to-one.”
Burbidge says children respond best to her group bootcamps in which she gets them doing “hedgehog crunches”, “the ministry of funny walks” and “aeroplane races”.
“I teach them about how their bodies move and about the importance of being fit. But they are never going to get anywhere unless the underlying theme is fun.”
Hilary puts the youngsters through their paces