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Originally published Thursday, October 2, 2014 at 6:35 PM

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Tamer CrossFit muscles in on preschool circles

Physical fitness for children has become big business, as gyms and workout centers continue to wind back the age of their youngest customers even further. And CrossFit wants in on that trend.

The New York Times



On a recent afternoon at the CrossFit gym in Queens, 3-year-old Ella Reznik bounded toward an array of hoops and candy-colored bouncy balls, her ponytail and her mother trailing behind 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 under way: Duck, Duck Goose, burpees and dangling from monkey bars.

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

As the issue of youth fitness — from obesity to proper exercise — 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 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.”

Physical fitness for children has become big business, as gyms and workout centers continue to wind back the age of their youngest customers even further.

Last year, there were 460,000 youths under age 13 using personal trainers, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. That is more than triple the 140,000 who used them in 2009.

Youngsters 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. The emphasis for 3- to 5-year-olds, they said, is on fun.

“There is a stigma,” said Jeff Martin, the 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 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 the younger siblings of his elementary-, middle- and high-school-age students were frustrated that they had no activity of their own.

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 the recently potty-trained.

In recent years it has ballooned to about 700 active preschool CrossFit Kids classes across the country.

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 kids as superhero leaps.

In Queens, 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 lift weights or 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 as well. They suggested that parents would benefit from observing a class beforehand.

“CrossFit has the image of pushing people beyond their limits,” said Dr. Gregory Myer, director of the Human Performance Lab 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.”

In addition to promoting fun and safety, Dr. Lee Beers, a pediatrician with Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., said 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 negative body-image issues down the road.

Shiri Reznik, Ella and Adam’s mother, said it was not until she met the preschool instructors and saw the low-intensity environment that she decided to enroll her children.

“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 that often the struggle is harnessing 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,” Salveo said. “They have no fear at all.”

Costs vary by location, but children in Queens 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 said she was surprised when her older daughter, Natalie, 10, embraced CrossFit Kids after eschewing ballet, gymnastics and tennis.

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

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