Click to Enlarge SHERMAN OAKS SUN - September 2007 


Twenty-five is the number of grams of fat in three chicken breast strips from a local fast food restaurant in Sherman Oaks. 25 is also the approximate percentage of kids in Sherman Oaks who are overweight, according to a study conducted by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which analyzed results from the 2004 California Physical Fitness Test of fifth, seventh and ninth graders.

Unhealthy food temptations are virtually inescapable for children and their parents. The ten-year-old Max Fitness Academy is separated from the fast food restaurant mentioned above by a small parking lot. John Youn, owner of Max Fitness Academy started Max Fit Kids as a way to “plant the seed” of good fitness and nutritional habits in kids’ hearts and minds at an early age with the hope that these habits will fuel a lifestyle continued into adulthood. “The reason I started this whole thing was because I saw the struggle of overweight children,” Youn says.  I started noticing the increase of obesity in kids now and the press talking about how many kids everyday are [becoming overweight] because of junk food and lack of activities.

15-year-old Tabitha Lawrence walked into the fitness center in early July to tone up her body and get ready for her school’s dance team come September. Since then, the Burbank High School student has lost 12 pounds. Lawrence said she has found it easier to dance, noting, “I have noticed
a difference.”

Max Fit Kids 15-week program is a community partner in the National Institute of Health’s We Can! Program, or Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition. We Can! is an educational program that emphasizes the influence of parents and caregivers in their children’s health.

Besides helping children at the fitness center, Max Fit Kids has helped five local schools, both public and private, that elected to participate in the program’s first year. The schools include Sherman Oaks Elementary, Lankershim Elementary, Burbank Elementary, Rio Vista Elementary and Ivy Academia. During the program, Youn and the Max Fitness Academy trainers visited the schools once a week for 15 weeks and met with kids who have either failed the California Physical Fitness Test or were selected by the schools to participate.

Youn is proud of the program’s nutritional focus and the notion that every child who participates is a winner.

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Fitness trainer John Youn stands before an antsy class of elementary school kids at Ivy Academia's gymnasium in Woodland Hills. It's the end of the school day, and he's trying to explain to them why they shouldn't eat sugar after 7 p.m.

"How many of you know what metabolism is?" he asks the shuffling crowd. A few kids raise their hands; most don't. "How many of you have no idea?" Legions of hands shoot up, and Youn explains.

It's a different sort of teaching than he's used to doing at his gym, Max Fitness Academy in Sherman Oaks, but he knows it's just as important -- if not more so.  "We want to get kids to understand how to properly eat," Youn said outside of class. "It's very important that the kids get in shape now, at this age, because it sets a foundation for the rest of their lives." 

It's that foundation that Youn, along with a handful of other volunteers, is trying to instill in kids with the 15-week Max Fit Kids program designed to supplement the traditional physical education program at local schools. Founded by Max Fitness Academy's owner, John Youn, in response to the childhood obesity epidemic, the class is being offered at Ivy Academia and Lankershim Elementary School in North Hollywood.

In addition, low-income children can take a similar program for free at Max Fitness Academy. Youn said he hopes to expand the program to other schools as the program gains more funding. "We just want to do our part for the community,""The best way to get started," he added, "was to go to the schools." And so he did.

Developing the program as a community partner with the National Institutes of Health's "WE CAN!" (Ways to Enhance Children's Activity and Nutrition) program, Youn wanted to make it more than just a gym class. Besides getting exercise via push-ups, tag and dodgeball games, kids learn about nutrition, calories, metabolism, trans-fats and simple sugars. To gauge each child's progress, Body Mass Index and weight calculations are taken at the start and end of the 15-week period.

"We have one kid who's already lost at least 10 pounds," John Youn said. "Kids (as opposed to adults) can make a big change right away. You can see changes on a weekly basis." They're necessary changes. According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly one out of every five kids in the U.S. is considered overweight. It's a problem many experts say starts at home.

Max Fit Kids is just one of a number of fitness programs throughout Los Angeles County aimed at giving children an extra boost toward a healthy lifestyle. In fact, the average American child gets 10 percent of his total energy intake from fast foods, compared to 2 percent in the 1970s, according to the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools. Of course, this is Southern California -- land of bikini-ready bodies and a Whole Foods Market for nearly every ZIP code -- so some kids already know this stuff.

Just ask Jo Morley, an Ivy Academia fourth-grader: "I only eat sugar-free chocolate and organic apple juice and stuff," Morley chirped. "We got rid of sugar when I was 6, and I've never been to a fast-food place." An energetic and bouncy blonde (you'd think she was on a sugar high if you didn't know better), Morley sounds perfectly happy to have given up the sweets and french-fry grease most kids crave. "My neighbors, they were like, 'Let's go to McDonald's and get some ice cream,'" she said. "I was like, 'No, no, no. You can't go there."'

Click to Enlarge COVER OF THE DAILY NEWS - 03/24/2008