- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

SEATTLE - Lucy Brown somersaults backward down a ramp, leaps over a mat, rolls across a platform, jumps a series of hoops, squats into a yoga pose and hops over a row of cones. And all with her diaper intact. The cherubic, grinning 2-year-old was one of eight toddlers stretching and puffing their way through yoga poses and aerobic exercises at a recent toddler-fitness class at the Seattle Holistic Center.

As the country’s population of overweight children swells, parents are flocking to baby exercise classes where tots as young as 1 day old can start getting fit.

Although doctors remain dubious, baby fitness advocates say getting babies and toddlers involved in exercise can set them up for a life of good health and improve motor skills and parent-child bonding.

“I have this little mantra and it goes like this: Fit baby equals fit toddler equals fit child equals fit teen equals fit adult,” says Helen Garabedian, author of “Itsy Bitsy Yoga: Poses to Help Your Baby Sleep Longer, Digest Better, and Grow Stronger.” She also teaches an Itsy Bitsy Yoga class in Marlborough, Mass.

Yoga comes naturally to babies, who often learn the positions independently as they develop, says Miss Garabedian, who works with babies as young as 3 weeks old. Babies often will move into “downward dog” just before they begin crawling, she says.

But do the children really understand what they are doing?

Three-year-old Jasper Dean seems to. During the cool-down portion of his class in Seattle, Jasper sits in his mother’s lap, eyes closed and legs crossed while serenely chanting, “Ohm.” He then places his hands together, bows his head and murmurs, “Namaste.”

“He has lots of energy, so it’s a good place for him to run around and learn about his body,” says his mother, Cindy Hazard, 40, of Seattle, who has been practicing yoga for five years.

At Christine Roberts’ Nurturing Pathways class in Kirkland, babies as young as 2 months participate in various movement and stretching activities. The class uses music and props to keep the babies focused and to help improve their eye tracking and coordination, Miss Roberts says.

“It’s so good for them,” she says. “We try to make it the whole-meal deal for the brain and the body.”

At a recent session, 7-month-old Jonah Justice muscled his way across a colorful workout mat, his tongue emitting a fine trail of drool as he pulled himself forward with chubby arms.

“Look at how strong he is,” his 28-year-old mother, Tanya Justice, squealed as Jonah reached her.

Even though such classes are fun, doctors say they do little to make babies physically fit. Very young children aren’t capable of the sustained exercise needed to improve cardiovascular health, strength and flexibility, says Dr. Eric Small, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on sports medicine and fitness, and author of the book “Kids and Sports.”

“Fitness is an adult concept,” Dr. Small says.

Nationwide, 30 percent of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered overweight or obese, government figures show. Nevertheless, the academy doesn’t recommend fitness classes for babies, arguing the fragility of an infants’ bones can set them up for injury.

But Bonnie Prudden, who wrote the book “How to Keep Your Child Fit from Birth to Six,” says babies’ muscles can be strengthened through exercise. Miss Prudden created a YMCA swim program for infants in the 1950s, and her research on childhood fitness helped create the President’s Council on Youth Fitness during the Eisenhower administration.

“Every movement they’re making in the water is exercise,” says Vera Garibaldi, who teaches babies as young as 1 day old in a “waterbabies” aquatic class in Bellevue.

At a recent class, Miss Garibaldi blew on 6-month-old Ethan Lux’s face, triggering an automatic reflex that caused him to hold his breath. Then she dunked him under the water where he kicked his tiny legs and propelled himself upward, breaking the surface wide-eyed and smiling.

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