Tampa Bay Times
July 2012

Tampa Bay Times July 2012

Largo tackles fitness, obesity problems through children’s programs

LARGO — Some kids might have been spending the morning eating Pop-Tarts and playing their PlayStation 3, but not Noah Aktas.

By 8:30 a.m. Friday morning, Noah, along with 12 other summer campers, was running drills on the athletic field at Southwest Recreation Complex.

He walked sideways through the speed ladder. He hopped over hurdles. He did everything but hold still.

Keeping kids active was one of the goals of Largo’s just-ended Fit Kids Camp, a two-week offshoot of an after-school Fit Kids program started about 15 months ago. Readmore…

Under the direction of Brandon McIntosh, a Largo recreation program leader, Fit Kids is designed to increase the overall health and fitness level of children in a fun, positive and motivating environment.

The summer campers, ages 6 through 15, came in all shapes and sizes. They received lessons in nutrition as well as daily workouts including agility drills, cross training, full-body workouts using free weights and swimming.

Noah, 12, participated in McIntosh’s first after-school program. In March 2011, Noah weighed 138 pounds. Now he weighs 119 pounds.

"I’m here in the camp because I want to maintain my fitness level,” Noah said.

"I remember when I first started working out with Brandon. It was hard to do any sports, hard to do anything. I was really overweight,” Noah said. "But then after a few months, people started telling me how I looked different. It’s given me confidence and I like to play basketball and football.”

For McIntosh, 31, seeing the success of kids like Noah has been an inspiration. "Noah is now a role model,” he said.

McIntosh, who received a sports management degree from Methodist University in North Carolina, is preparing to launch Fit Kids programs at Largo’s other recreation centers.

He’s also spreading the word about kid fitness. In August he will help Joan Byrne, director of the Recreation, Parks and Arts department, present "Fit Kids: Fighting Childhood Obesity with Fun,” at the Florida Recreation and Parks Association’s annual conference.

And in a few months, he and Dr. Chrisoula Kiriazis, a Clearwater physician whose children have attended Southwest Recreation Complex programs, will release a book, Fit Kids for Life: A Parent’s Guide to Healthy Children.

McIntosh is focusing on making kids more fit because "a few years ago, I’d see overweight kids come into the rec center and they were miserable because of the shape they were in. It hurt my heart,” he said.

McIntosh believes the key to his success is the fun factor. That means turning running drills into relay races.

"Kids love relay races. We make up silly nicknames for each team,” McIntosh said.

It means taking a scientific topic like calories and creating a trivia contest to help kids learn how many calories are in certain foods.

"And we also keep a running dialogue about fitness going for the four-hour camp, but we are never too serious. Everybody gets to tell jokes,” McIntosh said.

However, there’s one thing McIntosh never jokes about.

"Sugar. To me, sugar is toxic. That’s what I believe,” he said. "And it’s in everything, even canned vegetables."

Byrne broached the sugar issue in her former job as director at Southwest Rec. "We had candy in the vending machine” at the center, she recalled. "I thought, how can we look at ourselves in the mirror and see the junk we’re giving kids?”

So she pulled the candy from the machines. "That was about 10 years ago," Byrne said, "and with each year, we’ve gotten more committed to promoting healthier lifestyles because we see what’s happening with the lives of our children.”

Byrne says the Fit Kids program is part of her department’s goal to integrate three contemporary ideas concerning childhood fitness into the recreational programming.

The three ideas are "getting children outside and back into nature; getting kids unplugged from electronic devices and involved in unstructured, old-fashioned play; and tackling the rising rate of obesity,” she said.

McIntosh remains aware of how children are sensitive when it comes to body image.

"We talk about bulimia head-on. We talk about how wrong it is that some kids starve themselves to see fast results. Nothing happens overnight, and everything must be in moderation,” he said. "We also never say ‘fat’ or ‘I can’t’ in my program."

McIntosh also encourages participants to remember Fit Kids is a team effort.

"There is no letter ‘I’ in team," he said. "We are here to motivate each other.”