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Engage children in fitness and fun

Anita James has signed up her 4-year-old son Romello Early for swimming, T-ball and basketball programs this summer in parks near their Town of Tonawanda home.

“That will burn off the majority of his energy, but not all of it,” James said last week as she watched Romello go through several exercise paces with his Bethel Head Start classmates during the Fun2Bfit program.

The Univera Healthcare program helps teach parents and kids how to stay active and healthy at home. The timing couldn’t be better, said James, who knows what she’ll hear more and more from Romello and his brother, Ziair Barkley, 11, as summer vacation approaches: “Mom, I don’t have anything to do.”

Jerry Turcotte, a kids group fitness instructor with two boys of his own, is among parents who share that concern. He taught several exercises last week during the Head Start gathering at Medaille College. His repertoire comes from a book he wrote with help from his son Max called “Exercise Like the Animals.” (

“I can’t stress enough that when kids are being crazy, ask yourself why,” Turcotte said. “It’s not just sugar. How much activity did they have today?”

After his exercise programs, kids sit relaxed, “crisscross, applesauce in a circle, and just take nice easy breaths,” he said. “They just worked.”

Organized sports are a great way to help keep kids fit and teach them other important skills, said Turcotte, and Heather Ross, mother of four and a physical education teacher at Elma Primary School who also is involved with Fun2Bfit. They stressed that it’s also important for parents to help their kids eat right and get enough exercise at home.

In many households – where busy schedules combine with gobs of TV, video games and smartphone time – that doesn’t always happen. Obesity has more than doubled among younger children during the last three decades, and quadrupled among adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Things that are not organized – the things that we did as kids – a lot of our kids nowadays have no idea what some of these things are,” said Ross, who with Turcotte provided the following tips to help put kids on the right health track:

1. Listen to your kids Turcotte and his wife, Diana Proske, have two sons, Max, 8, and Simon, almost 5. “I know when it’s time to go play outside,” Turcotte said. “My 4-year-old tells me. Kids want to be outside and we have to put them in places where we feel it’s safe to be outside. For us, that means taking a walk around the neighborhood with our dog. We do it as often as humanly possible but we do have to squeeze it in with activities like soccer. We like our family walk. It’s good for us.” Walking can add years to your life, ward off sickness and prevent the onset of chronic disease as you age, according to a 2013 study by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Other research has shown that a brisk walk, most days a week, will help control weight, lower blood pressure and blood sugar, reduce stress and improve sleep quality.

2. Start early

“Phys ed is their favorite part of the day,” Ross said of the students in grades K-4 she’s taught during her 11 years at Elma Primary. Turcotte leads group fitness classes for toddlers on up to children in their teens. He calls the younger ones “half-letes,” and said they already know, generally, how to exercise. Many adults are amazed to see 4-year-olds get onto the ground and kick their legs high behind them in a “goat kick,” he said. “If we can teach kids at the earliest age possible all of the great things they can achieve with their bodies,” Turcotte said, “they’re going to be better prepared for everything, because they’re going to be more confident.”

3. Have easy ideas at hand

The Turcotte family fitness plans include biking, hiking and visiting parks and playgrounds in and around their Parkside neighborhood. The kids also will take swimming lessons and spend time at city splash pads this summer. Playground stops are frequent at the Olmsted School, which the Turcotte kids attend, as well as Tapestry Charter School, and Front Park on the city waterfront. They mostly get to these spots on foot or by bike.

“Imagination needs to come back into play,” Ross said. Let kids devise games and rules for themselves, but keep the same rules throughout, which helps them learn life lessons that come with winning and losing. Many children involved in baseball, basketball, soccer, dance and other activities should consider exercises and play in the yard that enhances those sports, she added. And parents should encourage variety, including jump-roping, hula-hooping, tag, yoga, tennis, golf and more. “If they love to do activities when they’re young,” she said, “it’s more than likely they’re going to love them when they’re older.”

4. Make healthy connections

Waiting in line recently to sign up for soccer, Turcotte’s sons did “ostrich stretches” and “ibis balances” they have learned to do whenever the mood strikes them. The family also throws in exercise on walks that often include the boys and several neighborhood kids. Ross and her husband, Jeremy, a personal trainer, decided a decade ago to focus on local, organic foods, and bring their children, now 9 to 16, in on the shopping and cooking. “All those little things we do that we think don’t make a difference – they do,” she said. “It sends a positive message that eating well and exercising is helpful in all parts of life.” Find healthy family recipes at

Outdoor chores present more opportunity. “This time of year, there are certain things around the house you’ve got to do,” Turcotte said. “There are many good reasons to encourage your children to help you do that, not the least of which is exercise. Gardening and yardwork, they burn lots of calories. If you can get your kid in a place where he’s loving raking and helping around the house, then you’ve done a pretty good thing for yourself and your kid.”

Another benefit: You get to spend more time together as a family.

5. Support public improvements

Turcotte grew up in central Maine and met his wife at the University at Buffalo Law School. While studying for the bar exam, he rode his bike daily between his old University Heights neighborhood and the UB North Campus. “It was treacherous,” he said, but the work of GObike Buffalo and others has since made for more bike paths, bike trails and bike lanes across the region. Turcotte encouraged parents to support those efforts, as well as those to add more physical education time in schools, more parks in local communities and more playground equipment and activities in those public spaces. He hopes one day to create a “book walk” on the Outer Harbor that would take pages from a children’s picture book and spread them out in a series of fitness stations in Wilkeson Pointe park or along a new bike trail. “With exercises,” he said, “you can make a lot of those traditional stories come to life.”

See related stories, Page 10

Coming next week: The executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo shares his five favorite WNY places to walk. What’s your favorite? Email