Childhood obesity is exploding in our country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years and has immediate and long-term effects on health and well-being.
The causes are clear – poor diet and a lack of exercise. Kids are glued to their assorted electronic devices or sitting in front of a television for hours each day. Despite the availability of a variety of food year-round, less-than-healthy fast food is often on the family menu.
The crisis has spurred leaders ranging from former President Bill Clinton to first lady Michelle Obama to Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant to act.
Which is great news to Jodi Levine, owner of Jodi’s Gym in Mount Kisco and Manhattan, who’s been getting kids moving for more than three decades.
“Finally, the world is catching up with what I believed in,” she says. “I’m happy to see it’s become more mainstream. Kids need good role models.”
Practicing what she preaches has never been a problem for the woman who offers gym classes to kids ranging in age from 9 months to 12 years.
“I was always an active child, climbing trees and playing outside,” says Levine, who started gymnastics at age 12. She went to Indiana State University on an athletic scholarship and competed in gymnastics on a national level.
After earning a master’s degree in industrial psychology in 1980, Levine didn’t want to do anything sedentary, so before finding what she calls a “real job in real life,” she started teaching gymnastics in New York City.
“I got so much from gymnastics. It’s a well-balanced sport. It helps you to be strong, flexible and have good balance.” She also says it increases body awareness, motor skills, strength and coordination.
“I loved kids and I loved gymnastics and I had a vision that little ones could benefit from gymnastic classes that were just for fun,” says Levine, who started Jodi’s Gym in Manhattan in 1982. “Gymnastics improves their focus and concentration and builds their self-confidence. Exercise in general has so many advantages for kids. They feel less stress and feel good about themselves.” She says other benefits are improved self-esteem and body image. “And it improves their sleep.”
Levine ran parent/child classes that were then called “Mommy and Me” for toddlers and children up to 3 years old.
“The moms thought it was amazing. It was a really fun, positive introduction to movement. I wasn’t trying to make their children gymnasts and they were walking away thinking it wasn’t hard. It was just pure fun.”
Activities like the “Teeny Tumblers” class where 9- month olds wiggle and giggle and “Mighty Muscles Movers” – where kids up to 3 years old run, jump, tumble, swing and stretch – give kids a building block for exercise and movement. And Levine adds that the activities in her classes also provide children with early exposure to the “mind-body connection,” the interaction of the physical, mental and emotional aspects of the human experience.
Levine expanded her horizons in 1999 after she moved her family up to Westchester County.
“I couldn’t find a Jodi’s Gym model for my own children, so I decided to open a branch in Mount Kisco.”
Today there are even “Jodi’s Gym to Go” programs where she brings classes to other sites like preschools.
“Get your kids moving at an early age, and it will become a habit for good health,” Levine says. Little steps for more activity can be taken each day. “My kids always laughed, because I parked the car in the farthest spot in a parking lot.” And she has good advice for parents on finding activities that their children will like. “The worst thing you can do is force them to do something they hate. That will turn them off and they won’t want to do anything.”
Levine says it’s important to know your children and respect them for who they are and find the right match of an activity for each of them.
“Kids learn through play and just need to have some unstructured playtime. Let them climb a tree and swing.”
And she says organized sports aren’t for every child. “If they burn out too soon, they can risk physical injuries and they shouldn’t have to be compared to others.”
She encourages parents to be a role model by setting an example and recommends planning active family vacations. “Some of our best vacations with my two children were when we were skiing or on a bike trip.”
Levine touts the total wellness benefits of being active and says that exercise and eating well go hand-in-hand. For Levine, to move is to have fun. “It’s just not worth it if it’s not fun. Find something you truly enjoy.”
She is pleased to see a second generation at Jodi’s Gym when former students bring their children to her classes. “They learned it, they loved it, and that means everything to me.”
For more, visit jodisgym.com.