Usually I like to wait until after the workday to begin schvitzing, but this story from the Sydney Morning Herald sent my sweat glands into overdrive. As Sandy Szwarc at Junkfood Science so eloquently points out, the mission to curb the global epidemic of childhood obesity has unleashed a smorgasbord of exercise and nutrition programs that feed the hysteria but don't help kids. Now, just as the Baby Mozart phenomenon fueled the era of anxious parenting, the obesity problem is spawning its own misguided innovations.
The latest workout equipment for toddlers and young children includes mini-treadmills, exercise bikes, rowing machines and steppers that "can be used while watching a circuit training program on DVD." Although Australia boasts its share of fitness fiends and has toyed with programs that would pay its citizens to lose weight, the miniature fitness machines are not getting a ringing endorsement in professional circles there. (From what I could gather, the equipment is produced in the U.K.) The story quotes numerous childhood obesity and child-play experts who are appalled by the new trend, calling it "a frightening portent of things to come."
"Children do not do physical exercise to burn off calories," Tim Gill from the Australian Society for the Study of Obesity told the SMH. "They play because it is fun, and when they play they are learning fundamental movement skills they will carry throughout their lives. If this is the best approach to the obesity crisis, then we're doomed."
Since the items are priced at around $150 each, it's unlikely that preschools will be haunted by little deltoid-bound diaper-clad Arnolds anytime soon. But still. Shouldn't there be a special criminal statute for product designers who seek to destroy what's left of normal childhood? Maybe the rest of us have to burn calories while channel surfing, check our BlackBerry while in downward dog (à la Arianna Huffington) or -- my personal multitasking weirdness -- jog while talking on a cellphone. But most kids are still smart enough to know that monotonous, purposeful exercise is a boring alternative to pillow fighting, climbing a tree or racing down the street and screaming like a darling hellion.
OK, perhaps I'm being paranoid. I'll admit that when my friend waxes enthusiastic that she has hooked her 7-year-old daughter on video games, I must resist the urge to make like an Edward Munch and scream: No! But the photo accompanying the SMH article -- of a little boy on his exercise bike, staring despondently into the camera, a television flickering in the background -- gave me the willies. I know that as the adult world moves inexorably toward technologically mediated experiences -- not riding a real bike but an exerciser, not visiting a friend's house but his or her MySpace page -- it's inevitable children's products will reflect that as well. But such products also speak volumes about how far some will go to make a buck off an anxious parent. Whether it's Baby Mozart "educating" babies or McDonald's Apple Dippers with Caramel Sauce offering a low-fat albeit massively sugary alternative to fries, sometimes the cure seems at least as bad as the disease.