Tampa Bay Times
May 2011

Tampa Bay Times May 2011

LARGO — Fast food, video games, television and Facebook.

Parents pressed for time, juggling work in a tough economy, and in many cases struggling with sheer exhaustion.

Welcome to family life in 2011.

Brandon McIntosh, a Largo recreation program supervisor and certified personal trainer, has seen both sides — inactive youth uninspired to get in shape and frustrated parents concerned with their child’s health. With the official launch of Fit Kids, he’s aiming to help those families in need.

McIntosh, 30, is well aware of the statistics: About 17 percent of children and adolescents 2 to 19 in the United States are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. That’s 12.5 million children.

"In the last couple years, as I worked with our (after school) program, I saw a lot of kids who were overweight feeling picked on because of their weight, and I wondered, if they feel like this in my rec center, what must it be like for them in school? I felt bad,” McIntosh said.

Every Monday since March, he has led a one-hour fitness class with up to 20 kids, ages 9 to 15. As music is pumped into the classroom next to the gym, he combines a nutrition lesson, aerobics and training on exercise equipment. He also moves the class outside, holding part of the workout in the fresh air.

McIntosh is quick to point out that Fit Kids is made up of typical youngsters. Yes, some joined to help get their weight in check, yet others enrolled for the camaraderie and simple pleasure of group activities. Still others joined to get in shape for team sports like football.

McIntosh, who received a sports management degree from Methodist University in North Carolina, believes the sooner a child controls his own physical fitness program, the better.

"At 11, kids can be stubborn, but when they are 15, they are even more so. We hope we catch them early,” he said.

When Karen Aktas, whose son has played flag football at Southwest Recreation Complex for several years with McIntosh, heard he was starting up Fit Kids, she immediately enrolled her son Noah, 11.

Aktas admits keeping her son on a healthy track is something she hasn’t been able to master by herself.

"Noah’s habits could be a lot better, but I’m a single, working mom with not a lot of free time,” she said. "I need all the help I can get, and Brandon is up on a pedestal with Noah, so when Brandon talks about healthy eating and exercise, my son does it.”

Noah likes the way Fit Kids keeps fun in the workout. He admits he doesn’t like every exercise, however. "I don’t like doing those,” he said as he pointed to a green elastic exercise band used to build up triceps muscles and strengthen the shoulders. "But if I have to, I’ll do them.”

Another parent, K.C. Stofer, saw her 9-year-old son, Brian Cerebe, heading down a dangerous path.

"We have diabetes in the family. He was overweight, sneaking food, and I was having trouble getting him to do anything,” she said.

Since he started working with McIntosh, Brian has lost 10 pounds and has moved from wearing size 36 shorts to 34, Stofer said.

His self-esteem has escalated, and he has developed a habit of thinking about his health. "When we go to the store now, he says things like, ‘Mom, we need to buy apples,’ ” she said. "Before, he’d never say that.”

Brian didn’t expect to enjoy the group. "I hated things like getting on the treadmill, but then I realized Brandon was like a coach. If I tried to get away with things or not do something, he wouldn’t let me,” he said. "We have worked so hard that things like the treadmill are easy now, and I know that it means good stuff is going on in my body.”

Largo has an obligation to keep youth a priority, said Joan Byrne, the city’s Recreation, Parks and Arts director. She has asked McIntosh to meet with recreation supervisors at the city’s other centers as part of a department-wide push for an even stronger youth fitness program.

"Play used to be a kids’ thing, but because of computers and that sort of thing, kids have lost play as a physical activity,” she said. "You’ve got to show kids how to make (fitness) a part of their daily routine, and Brandon has been able to do this. He’s a kid magnet.”

Does McIntosh have advice for parents who are searching for success on the home front?

"Whatever you do, the kid will do. Lead by example.”