Video games, television and the Internet continue to consume children's lives, contributing to a childhood obesity epidemic the United States has struggled with for decades.
Some fitness centers now seek to use children's obsession with technology to get them in shape by incorporating interactive, state-of-the-art equipment in their facilities.
Wayzata resident Judy Shink and her husband, Tony, have made interactive equipment part of their fitness center, Enercise Gym, which opened this month with an aim of attracting and engaging children ages 6 through 14 in physical activity.
"We wanted to create an alternative for kids, because sometimes playing outside and competitive sports aren't enough," Shink said. "Kids nowadays gravitate to technology and video games."
Some of the equipment at Enercise hasn't been seen before in the Twin Cities, but has been used by professional athletes and by patients going through physical therapy.
Three of these machines are the Trazer, the Makoto and the NeuroActive BrainBike, all of which use different types of interactive technology to engage the user in a way not typical of your typical treadmill or exercise bike.
A NEW, EXPENSIVE KIND OF PLAY
Steve Suchanek, the director of product management at CYBEX International, which makes the Trazer, said that interactive technology is needed to get kids to be interested in physical activity.
Suchanek said playing outside will always be good for children, but with the popularity of gaming systems like Xboxes and Nintendo Wiis, "the concept of play for kids is changing."
"Kids are changing their ways of communicating, and they're attracted to technology," Suchanek said. "The Trazer is CYBEX's response to that change."
But using technology to make children interested in exercise comes at a price.
The Trazer costs $6,495, which doesn't include a video display screen. A BrainBike costs $3,900, while the Makoto is priced as high as $7,400.
Also, membership at Enercise costs $45 per month, while non-members pay $15 per session. Costs vary depending on the types of membership packages that people want.
MACHINES NOT THE CURE-ALL
Some experts question whether high-tech equipment is the answer to fighting childhood obesity.
John Sirard, an assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota, said interactive technology can work well in social settings. But he said it benefits very few people, because it's likely that many families wouldn't be able to afford to enroll their children in gyms that have the equipment.
"Perhaps the screen-based approach will be beneficial for some," Sirard said. "Unfortunately, the majority of overweight and obese youth are from low-income minority groups."
He also said that the technology may be ineffective in improving children's fitness in the long run, because interactive systems like Enerceise's BrainBike can distract a person from exercise.
Exercise, Sirard said, is only effective if people don't become sidetracked.
"Getting people to exercise by distracting them with screen-based media is a very short-sighted approach," Sirard said. "It won't change unhealthy behavior in the long run."
According to Sirard, a more sustainable solution to fighting childhood obesity would be to spend time discovering ways to get kids to genuinely enjoy the feeling of being active.
KIDS NEED TO BE MORE ACTIVE, BUT HOW?
Direct observation studies show that younger children and children in early adolescence get their physical activity in shorter bursts of high intensity activity from things they do in a natural setting, rather than from the "sustained bouts of effort" found in fitness centers.
"I don't think there is any one solution that will work for everyone," Sirard said. "But the motivation to perform healthy behavior should be internal, not external, if you want the behavior to persist."
The challenge is that whereas active play used to be a common activity for all children, many are now more likely to be found in front of a TV or computer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity rates have tripled in the past thirty years. Experts say children ages 8 to 18 devote an average of seven and a half hours to entertainment media like computers, video games and cell phones.
Children rarely break out in spontaneous play like they used to, said Mark Blegen, an assistant professor of exercise science at St. Catherine University.
He said gyms can help pull kids off the couch, because they are encouraged and expected to participate.
"Kids generally do much better with structured exercise, like gym class or going to fitness centers," Blegen said. "It forces them to be active."
Blegen said there is no one answer to the child obesity problem, but that physical activity in general would go "a long ways" in fighting the obesity epidemic.
"Fighting childhood obesity is nothing magical," Blegen said. "Whether it's playing outside or going to gyms, it really doesn't matter how we do it. We just have to get kids moving more."