Opinion: Can fat kids equal big business?

The results are in, parents, and they are not good. Put bluntly, the kids are out of shape.

Obese, even, in some cases, thanks to what’s been described in a recent report as a startling lack of regular exercise in their daily routines. It’s a trend that should worry any of us not interested in dying before age 40, although don’t worry – I’m not about to tell you how to raise your kids. I’m sure you’re doing a terrific job.

Collectively, however, we seem to be failing and failing mightily, according to the recently released 2010 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.

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It gave our kids a pathetic “F” grade for physical activity levels, with just 14 per cent of Ontario’s youth – and 12 per cent of Canadian kids overall – getting the recommended 90 minutes of exercise per day. It seems not even the hysteria of the Vancouver Olympics could successfully pry kids off the couch. Indeed, all that medal action on TV probably helped contribute to the problem.

Which is why it’s so interesting to see what one Ottawa company is doing in response to what can only be described an epidemic of youthful girthiness.

Sporty Life Fitness Inc., a for-profit firm with operations in both Ottawa and the beautifully tranquil Prince Edward Island, partners with elementary schools to offer fitness and recreational programs for youth. Programs are aimed at grades one through five and offered before school, at lunch hour and after school, and focus on dozens of sports and activities.

Sessions are instructed by certified coaches, and typically last 12 weeks at 10 bucks per one-hour class, he adds.

It has operated in Ottawa for around a year, after owner Andrew Moss acquired it from its founder in the Maritimes and moved the head office here.

Indeed, after reading a few years’ worth of headlines about overweight kids, Mr. Moss says the company saw a big market opportunity. “One of the things that’s happened is that there has been a squeeze on schools to fit in more academic curriculum, and they’ve had to adjust the amount of physical activity they’re offering to their students,” says Mr. Moss.

“Back when you and I went to school, there was a gym teacher. And now in many schools there’s no such thing.”

But the best part is that notoriously cash-strapped school boards can benefit from the company’s program essentially for free.

“We’ve been very positively received at the school board level without exception,” he says. “Because we’re running outside the school day, the payment is made by the parents and not the school board.

“But the challenge has been getting into schools and finding gym space, freeing up time and getting the word out to the parents.”

Programs in Ottawa currently run at Alta Vista Public School, Jeanne-Sauve Public School, Ecole elementaire catholique Laurier-Carriere, Ecole elementaire catholique Saint-Guillaume and Ecole elementaire catholique Marius-Barbeau (clearly, the French Catholic board has been an early adopter of the company’s services).

Mr. Ross acknowledges that being in just five local schools, however, doesn’t equal a home run – far from it. The company does face intense competition from various not-for-profit entities such as traditional sports clubs and government-funded recreational programs.

“But we differentiate ourselves from them with the convenience of being at the school, where the parent doesn’t have to adjust their pick-up or drop-off time,” he says.

With around 300 elementary schools in Ottawa and thousands across the country, Sporty Life’s business model – which Mr. Ross says he hopes to eventually franchise coast-to-coast – could prove lucrative indeed, especially if parents get even more nervous about the state of their kids.

Only time will tell, however. About Sporty Life, I mean – and, of course, the fate of the country’s ever-more stout younger generation.

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