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Think of it as the family circus

Times Staff Writer

I wanted to work out. And I wanted my boy to work out. But when it comes to exercise options for families, the choices seem to break down to Classes for Kids (parents can watch) or Classes for Adults (children need to be watched). But FocusFish in Hollywood offers an exercise class that lets parents and children atone together for those frosted flakes and popsicles.

The studio opened in 1993 with the goal of creating a place where parents and children could exercise at the same time, like a YMCA. The family classes evolved out of a circus circuit class designed for adults and were officially added to the schedule in 2004. FocusFish now offers five Family Circus Circuit classes a week and plans to add four more to the schedule. They’re open to children age 3 and older -- provided their parent participates.

Still, I was skeptical that anyone could create a single class in which I could keep my heart rate up and my 3-year-old son would not be bored out of his mind.

I told my son we were going to exercise together or, better yet, to “play” together. He wasn’t overly enthusiastic. “I don’t want to play with mommies and daddies,” he said. “I want to play with my friends.”

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But there we were, in bare feet and gym clothes at 3 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. Owner and teacher Kristy Zornes Beauvais says dads show up too, but for this weekday class it was six mothers counting me, and about eight children, ages 3 to 7. The class is held in a big, beautiful room with hardwood floors, blue walls, natural light and a wall-length mirror. Exercise balls, trapezes and gauzy ropes hung from the walls and ceilings. Already my son was intrigued. It looked like a circus.

Then Beauvais, with wild hair and a big smile, came bouncing into the room. She had bare feet, bright orange shorts and a blue tee. She looked, in short, fun.

She cranked up the music -- “Funky Town,” for all those former ‘80s teenagers in the room -- and started in with some easy warmup exercises. My boy was lost, looking about in puzzlement, but the girls in the class shook their booties like mini-aerobics queens.

Then, at Beauvais’ direction, parents and kids alike ran, skipped and danced around the room -- going backward, forward and sideways. Then everyone took a turn doing a dance move in the center of a circle. The moves were goofy, but I was panting.

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It turns out that goofy, or fun, is key in exercise programs for kids.

The American Heart Assn. recommends that all children older than 2 get at least 30 minutes of moderate activity a day, and 30 minutes of rigorous exercise at least three to four days a week. One way to do that is to make exercise fun, the organization says. Another is for parents to be a role model and to provide physical fitness opportunities.

Beauvais agreed. “The best way to teach children is to show them,” she said. “Kids want to spend time with their parents, and all we want to do is schedule them.”

Avery Faigenbaum, a professor of exercise science at the College of New Jersey and a youth fitness researcher, said that although most physical fitness experts see the need for classes targeting adults and children, few gyms offer them. “The big plus of this is when children see their parents being physically active, children are more likely to be physically active,” he said.

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That doesn’t mean kids and adults have the same needs. Any class for children should focus first on fun.

And few things are apparently more fun than watching your mother do silly things. My son was now thoroughly revved up and running to get in line first for the next activity: relay races.

Suddenly, however, he was uncertain. So I carried him on my back for the bear walk, my belly for the crab walk and on my back again for the leap-frog. This was tougher than any weight circuit. My thighs and arms burned.

Then came several minutes of free-form hula-hoop play, a giant game of “hoop-scotch” and an obstacle course that just kept growing -- with a mat for cartwheels.

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Next, down came a silky stretch fabric that hangs like a rope -- but is actually two pieces of material so you can hang, climb or dance within it. We used it to swing like monkeys across the room. A 4-year-old girl took the first spin, taking a running, flying leap and launching herself across the room. Then a mother grabbed the rope and swung across the floor -- upside down. The children were delighted.

My son had never done anything like this, but he took the rope, wrapped his legs around it and hung on. He swung low -- and slow -- but was exceedingly pleased with himself. After that came a little core strengthening for the mothers. Beauvais lined us up in “plank” or “push-up position,” and then had the children crawl under the bridge of mothers, as she adjusted our positions like a yoga instructor. My arms trembled.

We lined up as Beauvais had all of us take turns climbing the rope of fabric to the ceiling. The children went first, while the parents placed their fists on the rope as footholds, and the children used them like the rungs of a ladder to start, and then go as far as they could beyond. Then the mothers climbed, doing a tricky move called “the wrap” to push themselves skyward. As the first mother pulled herself up to the beams on the ceiling, the children began cheering.

When I went up (and I only got halfway), my son looked so proud and amazed, it made the whole day worthwhile. Then came exercise, or play, with big rubber exercise balls. And at last we became still, trying to balance on our balls like acrobats, for a final moment of circus Zen.

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Kate McFadden-Midby of Echo Park said she comes to the family workout class twice a week with her daughters, Olivia, 6, and Simone, 4. She said she used to watch while they did gymnastics class, but no more. “The first time I climbed up really high [on the rope], and they were like, ‘Yay, Mom!’ ” said McFadden-Midby. “I said, ‘OK, this is the way I want to work out. You are a role model. You are really working out with your kids. You are not just coming back sweating from the gym.’ ”

And I was sweating. This wasn’t a calorie-burning cardio workout like, say, a spinning class. But the activities got my blood pumping while working a variety of muscle groups; my arms and abs were sore the next day.

As for my son, the succession of constantly changing activities piqued his curiosity. And the mixture of fun and challenge made him want to go back.

But better than that, there was something magical about watching parents and children together. The children were thrilled to see their mothers swing, climb and hang upside down -- while learning to be daring, strong and have fun themselves. And that was better than boring old “exercise.”

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