CrossFit Programs for Preschoolers Focus on Fun

At the CrossFit gym in Long Island City, Queens, the gym’s owner and coach, Michele Kelber, helped 3-year-old Georgia Costa work out. Credit Michael Appleton for The New York Times

On a recent afternoon at the CrossFit gym in Long Island City, Queens, 3-year-old Ella Reznik bounded toward an array of hoops and candy-colored bouncy balls, her ponytail and her mother trailing her.

Ella’s brother Adam, 4, padded along nearby on rubber black mats and inspected some metal bars bolted to the wall. The gym’s owner and coach, Michele Kelber, greeted the Rezniks and other children with a series of high-fives and smiles. Soon, class was underway: duck, duck, goose; burpees; and dangling from monkey bars.

CrossFit, the hard-core workout regimen, has a growing new demographic to court: preschoolers.

As the issue of youth fitness — from obesity to proper exercise regimens — takes on more resonance in schools and communities across the country, CrossFit Kids and other preschool fitness programs are raising questions about when and how children should start playing organized sports or hitting the gym.

The adult version of CrossFit has garnered acclaim and criticism in recent years for its high-intensity workouts and unyielding approach to exercise, with colorful language to match (barbell snatch, hang power clean, air squat, jerk and thruster). While critics have questioned the quality of some instructors and have said there is insufficient research on injuries, CrossFit has dismissed those claims as its business has exploded. Today it includes devout followers at more than 10,000 gyms, or “boxes,” worldwide and conducts the CrossFit Games, an annual test to find “the fittest on earth.”

Adam Reznik, 4, made his way through a tunnel constructed out of red tumbling mats. Credit Michael Appleton for The New York Times

Physical fitness for children has become big business as gyms and workout centers continue to wind back the ages of their youngest customers. Last year, there were 460,000 children under 13 using personal trainers, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, an industry trade group. That is more than triple the 140,000 who used them in 2009. Young boys and girls who used to be guided reluctantly into day care centers are now considered crucial to customer acquisition and retention.

CrossFit instructors say they are aware of the skepticism that sometimes greets their preschool efforts, and they say it is a misunderstanding. They argue that their low-key preschool classes are more akin to the tumble sessions and in-school physical education programs of the past. The emphasis for 3- to 5-year-olds, they say, is on fun.

“There is a stigma,” said Jeff Martin, a CrossFit Kids co-founder. The preschool program is “completely different,” he said.

“The goal isn’t to make the fittest 4-year-old in the world,” Martin said in a recent telephone interview. “The goal is to have a kid be physically active and physically literate so they can express athleticism in whatever sport they like. The goal is they can have a fun experience doing something physically active and buy into a physically active lifestyle.”

Martin said the idea for a preschool program arose in the early 2000s, when he noticed that the younger siblings of his elementary-, middle- and high-school-age students were frustrated that they had no activity in which to participate. In 2003, he and his wife, Mikki, started CrossFit Kids, and four years later they began consulting with pediatric physical therapists on developing a program for recently potty-trained children.

Preschool-age CrossFit participants do not use weights. Class time is short, typically 30 minutes or less. There are basic lessons on nutrition, such as where tomatoes come from. There are no weigh-ins or flexing of muscles before a mirror. Instead, activities are done for only a few minutes at a time in short bursts followed by rests.

In preschool CrossFit, dangling off hanging bars is likened to being a monkey. Squats are frog-inspired. Box jumps, plyometric leaps long beloved by elite athletes, are smaller and rebranded for children as superhero leaps.

In Long Island City, a tunnel constructed from red tumbling mats inspired comparisons to snakes and worms. Games and exercises were punctuated by water breaks and doodling. CrossFit Kids instructors are discouraged from telling children to move faster, Martin said. High-fives for effort are prevalent.

As long as that remains the case, some pediatricians said, CrossFit preschool classes can be suitable for youngsters. But some cautioned that the same criticisms leveled at CrossFit’s grown-up counterpart — that there can be great variation among the thousands of CrossFit outposts in the style and quality of trainers and regimens — may be true for preschoolers. The doctors suggested that parents would benefit from observing a class beforehand.

“CrossFit has the image of pushing people beyond their limits,” said Dr. Gregory D. Myer, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “You want to make sure people are trained in understanding a child. Kids are likely going to have a disconnect with their ability and what they want to do.”

Kelber played with Adam, left, Ella Reznik, 2, center, and Georgia, right. “It’s made for your kid to succeed in life,” Kelber said, “not to beat them down.” Credit Michael Appleton for The New York Times

Dr. Lee Beers, a pediatrician with Children’s National Health System in Washington, said some of her concerns were more environmental. If a child observes behaviors exhibited by adults at a gym, such as comparing muscles or looking distressed when weighing in on a scale, that could lead to a negative body image later in life.

“You want to make sure it’s teaching lifelong healthy behaviors for the sake of being healthy and not focused on body image or weight,” she said. “Kids this age are sponges, and they pick up on everything around them.”

Shiri Reznik, Ella and Adam’s mother, said she decided to enroll her children this fall only after she had met the preschool instructors and had seen the low-intensity environment.

“I see the CrossFit adults running around the neighborhood like crazy people,” Reznik said. “But once I saw this class, I saw that it was different.”

She added, “If it wasn’t playful, we wouldn’t do it.”

Angela Salveo, who offers CrossFit Kids for preschoolers at her gym in Middletown, N.J., said it was often a struggle to harness the boundless energy of preschoolers. “When we practice box jumps, if the boxes are set up for an adult class, they’ll try and jump on those,” she said. “They have no fear at all.”

Costs vary by location, but children in Long Island City can register for a once- or twice-a-week “membership,” at $140 or $260 a month, said Kelber, the gym owner there.

“We climbed ropes in gym class,” Kelber said. “I don’t even know if schools have ropes anymore. The kids are mesmerized by these things.”

For some parents and children, CrossFit has become an alternative to the travel teams and year-round youth sports schedules that can be so demanding. Leslie Costa, from Long Island City, said she was surprised when her older daughter, Natalie, 10, embraced CrossFit Kids after eschewing activities like ballet, gymnastics and tennis. This fall, Costa enrolled Natalie’s 3-year-old sister, Georgia.

“I think this isn’t as intimidating for them,” she said.

The class this month, which was punctuated by the occasional tear or a giggle, progressed from an obstacle course to a game of “farmers and lumberjacks,” a contest to tip over kettlebell weights onto the ground, as a lumberjack would knock over a tree. “I have strong muscles!” Ella Reznik exclaimed, tipping one over.

“It’s made for your kid to succeed in life,” Kelber said, “not to beat them down.”

Source: The New York Times
October 1, 2014
By Mary Pilon