Parents keen to give their children a good start in life are looking to yoga, swimming and developmental play classes for their tots. And in the US, these are seen as a way to ward off obesity.
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine
Kate gathers seven-week-old Louis into her arms, collects a brightly-hued mat and takes her place alongside other new mums at a baby yoga class in east London.
Babies are naturals in the water
The infants are not just passive observers. As well as involving their little ones in the movements, the mothers also guide the babies through a short session of poses to improve their motor skills and audibly ease any problems with wind.
"You do things like bend their legs, push their knees up to their chests and make hip circles, or touch the foot on one leg to the opposite hand," says Kate. "You can be surprisingly firm as you move them around as they are so flexible, and they seem to like being manipulated."
Classes such as this - and swimming for infants, active play courses and fitness lessons for pre-schoolers - are starting to spring up across the UK, echoing an established trend in the United States.
There, as in the UK, childhood obesity is soaring. Almost one-third of six- to 19-year-olds in the US are overweight, and concerned parents are flocking to keep-fit classes catering for children of all ages, including those too young to even crawl.
Medical experts have yet to be convinced, but advocates say that getting babies and toddlers involved in exercise can lead to a healthy lifestyle in later years.
Francoise Barbira Freedman, the author of Baby Yoga and founder of Birthlight, a charity which runs infants' yoga and aquatic classes, says the sessions don't make babies physically fit.
"These activities are not done to babies, they are done with babies. The aim is to help parents bond with their new child, and to instil an enjoyment of exercise from the start of life."
The classes developed from activities she did with her own young children - now aged between 18 and 29 - to allay her concerns that Britons were becoming too sedentary.
In the slow lane
Today it's a fear shared by many - including health officials - now that children are increasingly kept indoors by the lure of computer games and television, by fears of stranger danger, and by fewer sports classes in schools.
Sue Spinks, of the First Step 2 Fitness health club in Darlington, set up classes for four to 10-year-olds three months ago.
"The young ones skip and play traditional games such as stick-in-the-mud, and we run gym sessions for older children tall enough to use equipment like exercise bikes. It's something active for them to do, especially as they're not doing as much PE. Some of the older ones do tell us they're concerned about weight."
Bend and stretch
At London's Triyoga in north London, the timetable includes yoga for five to-nine-year-olds. The centre's instructors also teach in several nearby schools, and director Jonathan Sattin is in discussions with Camden council about classes in the borough's state schools.
"Kids lead more stressful lives than when I was a child, and yoga helps teach them relaxation techniques. It also promotes movement at a time when sports classes are being curtailed," he says.
Such classes may seem a middle-class indulgence, but can provide a useful outlet in urban areas where gardens are small - or non-existent - and parks may be a considerable distance away. Provided, of course, that the family can foot the bill.
"Not that obesity makes any class distinctions," says Lucy Cooke, a research psychologist at University College, London. "The difference is narrowing across the board as lifestyles get more sedentary and our eating habits become more American - too much, too often, too fatty.
"That said, the parents most likely to be interested in these exercise classes are also those most likely to interested in healthy living in general."