All Workout and No Play? as Any of These Kids Will Tell You, It's a Real Jungle Gym Out There

updated 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is Saturday morning, and Peter Vermeer is about to begin his workout. Fashionably attired in designer jogging suit and Nikes, Peter starts off on the Lifecycle computerized exercise bike; it gets his blood pumping and his pulse rate up. Then he does a few minutes of flexibility exercises on the trampoline, followed by free-weight work. From there, he proceeds through a series of weight machines designed to strengthen the pectorals, the biceps and the upper thighs. Then he does a series of sit-ups; the last thing Peter Vermeer wants is a flabby gut. He will finish with a few laps in the pool or, perhaps, a half-mile run on the indoor track. By then it will be time for Peter Vermeer to take a shower, get dressed and go home with his mommy.

Peter Vermeer is 6 years old. He is one of the 120 kids who work out at the 7 Flags Fitness and Racquet Club in Clive, Iowa, a brand-new $5 million health club that makes its pitch not just to the usual young singles but to young parents and their kids as well. Since the club's $500,000 children's section was completed in December, membership—which costs an average of $350 per family—has gone from 2,800 to 4,000, according to owner Lamar Koethe.

Iowa's 7 Flags is just one of the growing number of health clubs and gyms around the country that cater to children. While 7 Flags emphasizes muscle-building exercises, others, such as Kidsports in Reading, Pa., and Kidz-R-Cize in Beverly Hills, are devoted primarily to gymnastic and confidence-building exercises. More and more kids are engaged in regular exercise programs of one kind or another. And not everyone thinks it's such a great idea.

Dr. Lawrence Elegant, chairman of the sports committee of the Illinois State Pediatric Society, is especially leery of the muscle-building machines. "My concern would be muscle-fiber tear or possibly tears where muscle attaches to the bone, with possible skeletal damage," he says. "These machines are spring driven, and if the kids let go too fast, it isn't the machine that's injured." Elegant blames baby boom parents who are over-scheduling themselves and their children. "What's wrong with the whole family walking, swimming or riding bikes?" he asks.

Dr. Lyle Micheli, director of sports medicine at Boston Children's Hospital, is cautiously approving. "Should kids lift weights? Yes, It it's done properly and with proper supervision," he says. "If we're going to let them play football, hockey, etc., we had better make them stronger."

For the parents, working out en famille has its advantages. "It beats cartoons," says Beverly Vermeer, 38, Peter's mother and a librarian at a Des Moines law firm. While Peter goes through his workout, Beverly and her husband, Philip, 40, an associate professor of military science at Drake University, go through theirs.

Giving the youngsters an alternative to TV watching is a major theme of both parents and gym operators. So is the sorry state of children's fitness today. "In terms of balance, flexibility and endurance, children have very low skill levels," says Gary Seibert, founder of Kidsports. "We've overorganized organized sports, so kids quit or burn out if they're not superstars. Kids today are under a lot of stress; they just aren't having much fun."

Kidz-R-Cize numbers among its clients Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager's son Cristopher, 2; Candice Bergen's 2-year-old daughter, Chloe, and Ed McMahon's 2-year-old daughter Catherine. Husband-and-wife owners Terry and Phyllis Piotrowski feel gymnastics help children in areas other than the purely athletic. "The main thing," says Phyllis, "is that it gives children confidence at an early age. They get lots of praise and no criticism; parents see their children coming out of their shells."

For 9-year-old Brett Almburg, working out with 20-pound weights in the kids-only section at 7 Flags, there is another, much more immediate benefit. Says Brett: "It's a great way to get away from the adults."

—By Michael Neill, with bureau reports

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