As a fourth-grade teacher, Sara Turtletaub saw firsthand the obsessions many children develop around all things electronic. Whether for school or socializing, her kids were constantly “plugged in” to smartphones, iPads and other devices, she said, and went without the physical activity their growing bodies needed.
After a brief stint abroad, Turtletaub left her teaching career to address the issue head-on. She created Kids Unplugged, a new fitness and nutrition program that brings kid-friendly classes to local gyms and yoga studios, in lieu of the constant digital distraction.
Kids Unplugged partners with fitness facilities in Natomas, Arden and East Sacramento to introduce yoga, kickboxing, ZUMBA and strength training to kids ages 4 to 13. Turtletaub rents a weekly or biweekly slot at each studio, and provides the instructor and recruits the students.
A yoga teacher and the sole owner of Kids Unplugged, Turtletaub made the initial investment from her own pocket. She uses profits from the classes, which cost $10 to $15 per child depending on membership tier, to cover overhead and pay her three assistant trainers.
The business is still in its infancy, she said, but about 120 Sacramento children have gotten involved since the program started in June.
“I wanted to provide a space for kids to socialize and learn about healthy habits that aren’t just physical but also mental,” she said. “They’re realizing that there are other ways to have fun beyond playing on an iPad or watching TV.”
Until now, accessible fitness options for kids have been sparse. Most gyms don’t offer child memberships or classes for liability reasons, and more-specialized options such as dance, gymnastics and martial arts can get expensive.
While some kids play on sports teams at school, a lot of children stay inactive because they “just don’t click with basketball or baseball,” Turtletaub said.
“There’s not a game they have to win or a season they have to finish,” she said of her classes. “The end goal is having a healthy day. Parents are really thankful for the lack of commitment required. Most parents would not have thought about it, but now that it’s in front of them it’s really perfect.”
The program has launched amid rising concerns about child health in the United States. Obesity has more than doubled in children ages 6 to 11 over the past 30 years, and quadrupled in adolescents ages 12 to 19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, more than a third of children and adolescents were considered overweight or obese.
The problem has been blamed, at least in part, on an increase in daily screen time among children. A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 8- to 18-year-olds devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes to entertainment media during a typical day.
“We’ve definitely seen that as kids spend more time watching TV and playing video games they’re less active, and that has strongly correlated with the rise in overweight and obese children,” said Wendy Buchan, a dietetics adviser with the California State University, Sacramento’s Family and Consumer Sciences Department.
“Being sedentary is setting them up for having less muscle mass and a slower metabolism, and causing overeating while they’re not paying attention,” she said.
As schools bring in more-nutritious lunch options and bump up health education, parents are looking for ways to get their kids active. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends one hour of physical activity per day for kids.
Kasie Wilson, an East Sacramento mother who has two children enrolled in Kids Unplugged, peeked in on a recent Tuesday to watch her 12-year-old daughter, Natalie, launch one roundhouse kick after another into a punching bag at a Fitness Rangers kickboxing class.
Natalie often comes home from class giddy with excitement about a new punch or yoga pose, a sight Wilson said is well worth the monthly membership fee.
“Confidence is the biggest part,” she said. “These are all things she’s never done before, and she’s really seeing herself improve.”
Turtletaub said she takes pains to make sure the classes happen in a low-pressure environment. Yoga classes, for example, are taught in a circle and always have a theme, like Valentine’s Day or the Super Bowl. For cardio activities, Turtletaub makes sure to play music the kids will like, such as Taylor Swift and other age-appropriate radio hits.
And at the end of each class, children are encouraged to talk about a “switcheroo” from the week – a time they swapped an unhealthful food for a healthful one, such as eating a piece of fruit instead of chocolate.
“They’re holding these poses and working on flexibility and strength and balance, but they’re getting to do it with some creativity and conversation,” she said. “They’re never bored. It’s just constant motion.”
For more information about Kids Unplugged, call (916) 943-8055.