Nearly a million American youngsters, some as young as 6, rely on personal trainers to shape up, lose weight or improve in sports, according to figures from the nation's leading sports club association.
Many parents, worried about their children's weight and fitness, say working with a trainer motivates their kids and helps build confidence. So they are willing to spend the $40 to $60 an hour that trainers generally charge.
"We are seeing children that are out of shape where their parents realize the exercise program needs to be safe and effective," said Joe Moore, president of International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. "A personal trainer is a good way to make sure that the criteria are met."
The Boston-based group's latest figures, from 2005, show that 824,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17 use trainers — a figure that accounts for about 13 percent of trainers' clients.
With many high school students not getting exercise at school unless they play a sport, more parents are turning to trainers to help their children stay fit, said Carla Sottovia, assistant fitness director at Dallas' Cooper Fitness Center.
More than one-third of American children are overweight and experts warn of future health problems ahead from diabetes to heart disease.
Kathleen Ballew decided her 7-year-old son, Jordan Sims, who will begin second grade in the fall, could benefit from some one-on-one time with a fitness professional. She had noticed he needed help with balance and coordination in soccer and karate. She'd also observed he was reluctant to do things kids normally do, like climbing on park equipment.
"I also just want to get him in the habit of making exercise part of daily routine," said Ballew, who described her son as just a little overweight. She fears it's something he'll have to struggle with as he grows up.
Since Jordan began working out at Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center in Dallas with a trainer about a year ago, he moves more naturally and confidently, his mother said.
His trainer, Lauren Jacobson, works with about half a dozen kids under 18. She said she's noticed that training helps build confidence and a sense of accomplishment, along with helping kids get in better shape.
Zachary Edgerton, 18, who graduated this spring from a Dallas-area high school, has been working out with a trainer since his sophomore year.
He was in the middle of doing a makeover on his body after he began jogging as a 5-foot-2, 210-pound eighth-grader. By the end of his sophomore year, he'd lost about 60 pounds. Edgerton, who saw a trainer for a time during middle school, decided training was a good way to get more toned.
"I was done being a fat kid and I wanted to get in shape and feel good," said Edgerton, now 5-foot-7 and 165.
Dr. LeAnn Kridelbaugh, a pediatrician and nutrition specialist at Children's Medical Center Dallas, said that if parents have the resources for a personal trainer and their teen wants to do it, having a set appointment can be a good motivator to exercise.
"If you have the money and you feel that your late adolescent is going to get in shape and be more fit by using a personal trainer, I don't think that most pediatricians would have a problem with that," she said.
She cautions though that for children who have not yet reached puberty it's important that the trainer know how to work with kids whose bodies are still developing.
Kridelbaugh also points out that kids can get the exercise they need on their own by swimming, riding bikes, jumping rope or taking walks with their family. And something as simple as playing catch can improve coordination, she said.
"They can probably accomplish just as much with a motivated parent, playing games," Kridelbaugh said.
It's important that it be fun, she said.
Parents don't always find that easy to do, however. Kathleen McGowan said she's been impressed by the variety that her 13-year-old daughter's trainer puts into their workout sessions — something she doesn't think she would be able to do.
"It's unpredictable, which makes it fun," said McGowan.
After a recent fast-paced, 30-minute workout, daughter Katie McGowan's face glows with a wide smile and rosy cheeks.
"You're doing something to make yourself healthier and it's a really good feeling," she said.
The teen, whose twice-a-week training includes stretching and lifting weights, began working with a trainer this spring.
Katie McGowan said that before she began training, she occasionally worked out on a treadmill at home and sometimes played tennis. She also enjoys swimming.
Now, along with her training sessions and other activities, the soon-to-be eighth-grader stretches and works out a home.
Kathleen McGowan said the training sessions give her daughter's activities not only another dimension, but also add structure.
"I think it's made the whole concept of healthy living fun, as opposed to a chore," she said.