Stephen Wallace hopped off an elliptical machine and got a pep talk from his personal trainer about his bench-press goals. Wiping away sweat, he said social commitments can make it hard to get to the gym every other day.
Wallace isn't a busy professional squeezing in lunchtime workouts; he's a skinny 16-year-old with braces and a backward baseball cap. He's working out at Overtime Fitness Inc., one of the nation's only gyms for teens.
"At other gyms no one would sit down and teach me how to use the weights or the machines," said Wallace, a junior at Palo Alto High School. "Here, you get a lot of personal attention and that gives you motivation."
Wallace's mother pays the $59 monthly fee at Overtime, a Mountain View gym that has about 100 teen members and hopes for regional and even national franchises.
The gym offers a mix of conventional training equipment — treadmills, free weights, yoga mats — and kid-friendly features like a rock-climbing wall and cheerleading conditioning sessions. It also tries to appeal to teens with an arcade featuring video games requiring kids to box, dance and jump. Riders race against each other on stationary bikes.
Although fitness enthusiasts applaud the company's effort to reduce the rising incidence of teen obesity, public policy experts say its very existence is a byproduct of school budget cuts that have led to fewer physical education classes and after-school sports programs.
Others question Overtime's use of video games — a tactic that won't necessarily compel kids to keep exercising as they grow up.
Investors and employees — including founder Patrick Ferrell, who launched GamePro Magazine and helped establish the video game conference E3 — say high-tech toys lure some teens. But they say the gym also offers nutritional counseling and academic tutoring that encourage lifelong health. Plus, they say, it's better than leaving kids at malls and fast-food restaurants.
"What are our teenagers doing when they're idle? They eat, they go to Starbucks, they sit around at the mall and they have corresponding health problems," said CEO Laura Tauscher, a mother of two teenagers. "We're not trying to create gym rats — we're trying to give kids the tools and intelligence to keep their health in mind."
Overtime, which opened in September and still hasn't turned a profit, is entering the market as established chains are trying to get kids to become lifetime members. San Ramon-based 24 Hour Fitness just started "Hoopology," a summer basketball pilot program in the San Francisco Bay Area for boys and girls ages 8-17.
The company is far from the first niche gym — Woodway, Texas-based Curves International Inc., which targets women 35 and older, debuted in 1992 and has become the largest fitness franchise in the world, with 10,000 locations in 42 countries. There are about 1.5 Curves for every two McDonald's in the United States.
Although Overtime was founded exclusively for teenagers, in January it opened to women from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. It is opening to men this week and with expanded overall hours.
Like other gyms, Overtime caters to customers who can afford to pay for a place to exercise. But experts note that low-income teens are at the highest risk of obesity, diabetes, asthma and other health problems.
"Fitness is more akin to a public good, especially for kids," said Ann Cotten, director of the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore. "I worry that the kids that get access to this gym are the same ones on private soccer leagues."
The company is considering asking Mountain View-based Google Inc. and other local businesses to fund memberships for lower-income teens. It says it hopes to reduce teens' monthly fee as it gets more revenue from adults. Currently, day passes are $10, or five for $40.
Ximena Urrutia-Rojas, an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the University of North Texas, said emphasizing teen health is good but is no substitute for an active lifestyle that involves the whole family.
"Even teenagers who say they want to separate from parents feel motivated when parents or other adults initiate the activity," she said.
Sarah Barlow, associated professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University, praised Overtime's novel approach.
"Even for adults, the treadmill and stationary bike don't sustain interest over time," Barlow said. "I like the idea of taking video games, which are so successful at engaging kids, and modifying them to get kids engaged in physical activity — now that's fun."