When it comes to fighting the battle of the bulge, North Ayrshire schools are hoping gym'll fix it, writes Roddy Mackenzie
North Ayrshire Council has joined the Scottish Executive's fight against childhood obesity and decided that Shokk treatment is the best remedy.
Nine secondary schools and 11 primaries have begun using a new gym designed specifically for 8- to 16-year-olds - the first of its kind in Scotland - at the Magnum Leisure Centre in Irvine.
Shokk, a Manchester-based youth fitness company, opened the gym last month in association with the council. The initiative is partly funded by grants of pound;53,000 from the Big Lottery Fund and North Ayrshire Leisure. It forms part of a challenging childhood obesity project and is endorsed by the Ayrshire and Arran Health Board.
Children are advised not to use adult gym equipment because their bodies are still developing. The Shokk equipment has been developed specifically for children after years of research on both sides of the Atlantic, says brand manager Kieran Murphy.
Founded almost five years ago, the company previously imported specialised equipment from the United States but is now manufacturing its own.
"It's specifically designed to take into account the different limb lengths and the physical development of young people," says Mr Murphy. "It is not just a case of adult equipment being scaled down.
"We have worked closely with John Moores University in Liverpool and with Loughborough University, with their sports science departments, to see what best meets young people's physiological and psychological needs. Most of the children are going through puberty and we have to take a lot of things into account."
Shokk also works closely with the John Moores University-led Reach (Research into Exercise Activity and Children's Health) group and prides itself on being among the frontrunners encouraging a healthy and fit lifestyle for British children. It believes that if you can get children hooked on the gym culture, they will stay with it for years. And Mr Murphy argues that greater physical fitness can lead to greater mental performance.
The American College of Sports Medicine has recommended that teenagers take part in at least moderate exercise for a minimum of one hour a day and also at least twice a week take part in an activity that enhances and maintains muscle strength and flexibility.
Mr Murphy emphasises that the wellbeing of the child is paramount and everything at Shokk gyms - which are spread across Britain - is carefully supervised.
"Free weights are not something we would advocate at every level but there is a plate system for weights which goes down as light as 0.625 kg, which is about the weight of a Frisbee.
"We work in partnership with the British Weight Lifting Association. We work towards using free weights and we follow their youth development programme."
Children using a Shokk gym must complete a short induction course, which not only lets them become familiar with the equipment but also advises them on fitness and nutrition. In Irvine, the brightly coloured children's health and fitness centre at the Magnum also provides training for physical education teachers.
Teachers can book the centre any weekday morning, when it is set aside exclusively for school use. There are sessions for 8- to 11-year-olds and 11- to 16-year-olds, all coach-led, and there is a chill-out area where teachers and parents can sit and still watch the children.
"For the younger age group, the emphasis is on fun and working on basic movement," says Julie Gallagher, marketing officer for North Ayrshire Leisure. "There are climbing frames and soft-play areas - it's not too structured. They come to enjoy themselves.
"The gym machines are similar to the ones you would find in a conventional gym, such as treadmills, step machines, rowing machines and bikes, but they are adapted to the muscle strength of children," she says. "The equipment takes into consideration a child's limitations and we have found that the children have responded very positively.
"You have to see how the children react to appreciate it as they are very enthusiastic."
Shokk offers an online personal trainer for children to get exercise advice and keep a fitness diary. The website also offers diet tips.
"Maybe a traditional gym does not appeal to children but this is quite different," says Ms Gallagher. "It's a fun environment and it doesn't take place in a sports hall.
"It's not just about fitness but about health and it falls into line with the Scottish Executive's policy on working against obesity in children and young adults and promoting a healthier lifestyle."
"Schoolchildren we have taken along have all been impressed by the exciting fitness programmes and range of equipment available," says Gordon Syme, North Ayrshire's PE quality improvement manager. "Of particular comment has been their acknowledgment of the health and fitness benefits to their lifestyle provided in a cool environment."
The early success of the Irvine centre suggests going to the gym could become fashionable for Scottish schoolchildren.