Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Omaha.com

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By Katy Healey

WORLD-HERALD staff writer

The children at P.E. 101 Kids Gym are working up a sweat. The strands of blond hair sticking to 3-year-old Simon Bucksner’s grinning face are proof of that.

These kids have a winter outlet for their energy. As the weather shifts from cool to cold and kids are forced indoors, it’s more difficult for them to stay active. Parents can’t send them outside to the backyard swingset or neighborhood kickball game for hours at a time. Play involves more planning — you can take trips to the sledding hill or the ice-skating rink, but even those activities are limited when temperatures plunge.

Rather than giving up and letting the kids simulate activity with video games, parents do have some options.

Omaha has several businesses that focus solely on exercise for kids, including My Gym, near 132nd Street and West Center Road, and P.E. 101 Kids Gym, near 118th and Blondo Streets. Both indoor centers host classes, birthday parties and open play times for children. BounceU and Defy Gravity, both in La Vista, also invite kids to exercise on their trampolines and inflatables.

And there are several low-cost or free options for indoor play, such as church and library gyms, the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center and other locations.

P.E. 101 has scooters, a zipline, a rock wall, a foam pit, gymnastics rings, a basketball hoop, an in-ground trampoline and even kid-size gym machines, among other things.

The 5,000-square-foot facility is -focused on “making fitness fun,” said owner Keri Hauschild.

“Kids’ fitness is so important. … You have to start with these kids when they’re young,” she said. “They’re more likely to make it a lifelong priority.”

Dr. Birgit Khandalavala, the director of obesity medicine services at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, echoed Hauschild. She said it’s important to develop healthy habits before kids start elementary school.

“Most of childhood obesity begins from the age of 2 onward, maybe even earlier,” she said. “By the time children are in kindergarten, these activity and eating habits are probably in place.”

More than 1 in 3 kids are obese or overweight before their fifth birthday, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Americans have become more aware of the childhood obesity epidemic in recent years as experts and others step up efforts to solve the problem.

First lady Michelle Obama has made the issue a priority, encouraging kids to exercise and eat healthy foods with her Let’s Move! campaign. And this season, for the first time, NBC’s popular

“Biggest Loser” reality show will feature kids who need to lose weight.

It’s essential that adults actively encourage kids to exercise and even oversee the activity rather than just shooing them into the backyard, Khandalavala said.

“If you tell them to go play outside, it doesn’t work anymore,” she said, because today, more kids would choose TV over tag. She suggested playing games with your kids instead.

So parents and other adults like Hauschild who spend time leading their kids in exercise are increasingly important.

Most clients bring their children to P.E. 101 a couple times a week to burn off extra energy, she said, noting that kids always seem to have more to burn when they’re stuck indoors during colder months.

That’s when business booms. P.E. 101 hosts 50 percent more birthday parties between November and March and sees five times the number of children each week in the winter than in the summer.

Classes for 3- and 4-year-olds work on motor skills, like throwing, catching and jumping. Classes for older kids are longer and build primarily on those skills, eventually putting more emphasis on aerobic activities and sports. Classes last between 45 minutes and two hours. A membership costs between $40 and $80 per month.

Dawn Hove-Casart, director of the child care center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said as long as kids are moving, they’re exercising. She said the preschool-age children at the center sometimes do yoga and modified Zumba, a dance exercise class. Or they stick to games that get them up and moving: Duck- Duck-Goose, Simon Says and the Hokeypokey.

“At a young age, they’re establishing what are good healthy habits,” Hove-Casart said.

On a brisk Friday morning, Hauschild led Simon Bucksner and six other kids his age for about 15 minutes before giving them a break “to get the wiggles out” and starting another group activity.

The zipline was a crowd pleaser. One at a time, the kids hung on while Hauschild braced their legs and briskly walked the length of the line, pulling them along. They hopped on and off what look like oversized beanbags, shot baskets and playfully chased each other, too.

“It introduces them to exercise,” said Simon’s mom, Heather Bucksner. “We all want our kids to be healthy and fit.”

Simon’s favorite part of class is the in-ground trampoline exercise time.

“He’s been begging us to put one in the basement,” Bucksner said.

Rachel Nelsen has been bringing her 3-year-old twins, Logan and Addison, to P.E. 101 for several weeks.

“I wanted to find a place where they can actively play and run and jump and meet new friends,” she said.

Nelsen said the classes are set up in a way that they don’t realize they’re exercising. Khandalavala, of UNMC, said that’s key to encouraging kids to be active.

“Make it easy and make it a game,” the physician said. “If it’s not fun, they’re not going to do it.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1071, katy.healey@owh.com

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