WASHINGTON - Ronald McDonald is pushing exercise in elementary schools. Fitness guru Denise Austin has created an exercise DVD for school-age children. And Cookie Monster tells Sesame Street fans that his favorite treat is only a "sometime food."
In the past couple of years, growing public concern over major increases in child obesity has spurred marketers to begin creating products that promote a healthier lifestyle for children.
There is a new magazine, FamilyEnergy, devoted to providing exercise and healthy eating tips for parents and kids. Several new television shows, including PBS' Boohbah, Nickelodeon's Lazy Town, and the Disney Channel's JoJo's Circus invite young viewers to get off the sofa and move with the characters.
Teens have not been left behind in this new trend. Sales of Dance, Dance, Revolution, a video game that requires players to gyrate with the music, have skyrocketed.
This increase in youth fitness products is more than just a way for salesmen to build a niche in the marketplace. It is a response to some consumer and child-development groups, who blame much of the increase in childhood obesity on two factors: aggressive advertising of junk food to children and too much television watching by kids.
"I do believe that many of the things that these companies are doing is motivated by their desire to help children," said Mary Gavin, a pediatrician and senior fellow at a popular Web site called KidsHealth.org.
"But I also think a lot of it is being pushed because of the risk of a consumer backlash, as well as a fear of lawsuits," added Dr. Gavin, one of the authors of a new book titled FitKids. "Industry is wisely trying to get on the good side of the consumer."
There is another factor: Marketers are nervously looking at the situation in Europe, where the food industry was given one year to voluntarily curb marketing of fat-and sugar-laden products to children, or possibly face an advertising ban.
While such a government action currently is unlikely in the United States, advertisers are hedging their bets and recently formed a group to protect their ability to market products to children.
Called the Alliance for American Advertising, the group is spearheaded by three major food companies: General Mills, Kellogg, and Kraft Foods. Wally Snyder, president of the American Advertising Federation, told Brandweek magazine that the alliance is addressing the debate about food advertising. "Advertisers should be able to market to kids," he said.
Officials at Commercial Alert, a group working to prohibit junk-food advertising to children, responded in a statement that the new industry group was "good news," adding: "It's a sign that our movement is growing stronger."
Although advertising to kids has been a sore subject for years for some consumer and child development groups, the issue has become an especially hot topic in the past few years as government reports have charted an alarming rise in childhood obesity.
Obesity rates for preschoolers and teens have doubled in the past 30 years; the rates have actually tripled for children ages 6 through 11, according to government statistics. In addition to the social stigma of obesity, the medical consequences include an increase risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and kidney and liver problems, medical experts say.
The problem of childhood obesity was further spotlighted with the highly publicized release of two reports over the past year. The first report, published last February by the American Psychological Association, contended that marketing to kids under age 9 is inherently deceptive because young children cannot determine ads from other TV content.
Then, in September, the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a report focused on ways to reverse the upsurge in childhood obesity. Commissioned by Congress, the report recommended that the advertising industry to boost its voluntary regulation of marketing to children.
In addition, the report urged a number of other steps, including ensuring that parents encourage their children to be physically active by limiting their sedentary "screen time" with TV, computers and video games to less than two hours a day.
For some marketers, the report stirred interest in finding products that would help parents get kids off the couch and physically active. Anne Parducci, executive vice president for family entertainment and marking at Lions Gate, a video production and distribution company, said her company decided it was time to produce an exercise DVD targeted specifically at kids ages 7 through 13.
"What's out there tends to be for younger children," Ms. Parducci said.
So Lions Gate teamed up with Ms. Austin, a leading star of the video/DVD fitness market and the mother of two girls, to produce Denise Austin's Fit Kids. Set in New York City's Times Square, the workout features Ms. Austin and 12 kids ages eight to 14 dancing hip-hop, and doing sports drills, yoga and stretches.
There's also a separate 20-minute workout for kids to do with their parents.
"It's an answer for a lot of moms - a lot of parents - who have to work, and who can't drive their kids to all kinds of activities after school," Ms. Austin said.
Both Ms. Austin and Ms. Parducci stressed that the video/DVD is designed to be part of a "balanced" family lifestyle. "Kids are so drawn to television and video and computer games, and all of that is sedentary," Ms. Parducci said. "Parents need to find a balance between letting kids use technology, which is where the world is going, and keeping kids active and fit."
Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of research and education for Sesame Workshop, agreed that balance is the key. "The important thing is getting them up and moving," she said. "We want to put kids on a positive trajectory for a healthy life."
As part of this effort, Sesame Workshop and Sony Wonder have produced a new video/DVD, Happy Healthy Monsters. In the 45-minute presentation, kids can join Elmo and Zoe as they participate in a new exercise show hosted by Grover. Later, Cookie Monster talks about how cookies are just a "sometime food" for him, unlike fruits and vegetables, which are "everytime foods."
The video/DVD is just one part of a "multiyear, multimedia" Sesame Street initiative on children's health, Ms. Truglio said. Other components include regular health segments on the upcoming Sesame Street season, books and an interactive museum exhibition called "Sesame Street Presents the Body."
Some child-development experts like to point out the irony of television shows - even the venerable Sesame Street -urging kids to exercise, when a number of studies have indicated that too much screen time is a key culprit in childhood obesity.
"But it's not the least surprising," said Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College and expert on children's play. "The industry is always looking for new ways to get in the child-marketing business. Childhood obesity has become a very hot topic."
Some marketers, however, have just fallen into the child fitness trend. Jason Enos, product manager for Konami's Dance, Dance Revolution (known as DDR among its fans), said the product was not developed as an exercise tool for teens.
"But one of the unique things about this game is that it is physically interactive," Mr. Enos said. "It breaks the mold from other games where you are a passive mode, holding a controller in your hand. Here, you have to get up and use your feet."
The first home version of DDR was introduced in America in 2001, and the company has since gotten numerous letters and e-mails from people who have lost weight playing it. The game includes a workout mode and can track workouts over a period of time, Mr. Enos added.
Child-development experts say that anything that promotes child fitness cannot be all bad. But they also contend that parents and kids do not necessarily need products to get fit.
"Find out what your child likes to do, and support that," Dr. Gavin said. "Kids just want their parents to be involved."
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