putting the Fun in Fitness

| 10 May 2016 | 10:47

When it came to kids and fitness, Mara Wedeck saw the need for enjoyable activities to keep young people in New York City committed to staying healthy. “I had a child and was getting back into my fitness regime and started to explore what was out there for children,” she explained. “And I noticed there was not much happening in that dialogue. There was more conversation around it.”

In 2015, she teamed up with Maria Chatman, and the women combined their backgrounds working in sustainability, heath, fitness and programming. They launched PopFit Kids at the 14th Street Y and the program spread across community centers and schools, engaging more and more children and putting them on a path to lifelong exercise. Designed for kids ages 3 to 14, it incorporates elements of cardio, strength, flexibility, balance and endurance with a combination of drills, conditioning training and fun fitness games.

This summer, you can find them outdoors at Central Park, Pier 25 and Pier 46 and at summer camps at the 92nd Street Y, the Harlem YMCA on West 135th Street and the JCC Manhattan.

What was your business background before starting PopFit? I know you were involved in health and sustainability.I used to run a PR and marketing agency called Organicworks to help educate consumers about the benefits of organic and healthy and sustainable living. A lot of it was working with bigger clients like Whole Foods Market, which was obviously already in the sustainable and organic conversation, and just talking through some things of their behalf. And then also working with the smaller companies, like an organic baby company or an environmentally friendly magazine, helping them get the word out to get consumers aware. This was a time when environmental consciousness was not necessarily at top of mind and wasn’t totally part of the vernacular. It was right when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out, so there was a lot of conversation around it. A lot of people didn’t know the difference between what it meant to be organic, healthy, and environmentally conscious and how easy it was.

You met Maria through a mutual friend. How did the idea for the company first come about?We both were on the same trajectory, looking to create this kids’ fitness program. I was more on the food side of it than the physical side, working with companies to talk about healthy lunchboxes and nutrition in schools. Michelle Obama had recently introduced her Let’s Move organization which was doing a great job of communicating the importance of nutrition and physical activity for kids. So there was certainly a high level awareness starting, but not necessarily a lot of program implementation on the ground level about how to activate kids into movement. And unfortunately, a lot of phys ed budgets were being cut at the time in the public schools. And I was telling this story to a friend, that I was looking to transition from the nutrition side of it to more of offering physical fitness for kids. And she said, “I have another friend who’s been telling me the same thing.” Marie’s background was a little bit different. She came from the programming and fitness industry side. We created the company that is about awareness and positive associations with movement for kids.

Give us examples of the kinds of activities that are part of the program.The Fit 5 is cardio, strength, flexibility, balance and endurance. Much of which are typical components in adult fitness. A lot of it is also about having fun in our class. So we play really good music and different types of fitness games. For the younger kids, we do an interpretation of Duck, Duck, Goose that we call Fit, Fit, Run. For the older kids, we do certain kinds of circuit training, agility moves, working with BOSU balls. So it really depends on the age.

How do you find your coaches? What qualifications do you require they have?One of our criteria is about how coaches interact and work with kids. There are ways to engage children, so it’s certainly a lot about personality and creativity. All of our coaches are certified fitness specialists. They’re either group fitness instructors, certified personal trainers, or they come to us and then they get their certification through us. But they also go through our training, which is a 4-week program based on all of our methodologies. We have some awesome coaches who were former teachers and wanted to get into the physical fitness side of it. Then we have some coaches from Chelsea Piers and boutique fitness studios who come to us. It becomes a passion project for them.

You work with organizations like the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Union Square Partnership. How have they welcomed your program?All these organizations are wonderful. Usually they wind up finding us. With the Department of Parks and Recreation, we do open, free events for the public. We usually do one, if not more, a year with them. And then Union Square Partnership, we’re out in Union Square all summer long for Summer in the Square. Kids of all ages love to exercise with us doing fun drills and mini circuits and fitness games as part of USQ Partnership’s summer-long programming. And in the past, we’ve also done a stage performance for the annual bike celebration, Summer Streets, where they shut down the streets of New York for healthy recreation time.

This year, PopFit Kids was at the White House for the Easter Egg Roll. What was that like?We’re a partner of the Let’s Move organization. This year was the big tribute to Michelle Obama in her last year there and all the incredible initiatives that she did for physical activity and health and nutrition. We were an invited program. It was an amazing experience. We had about 15 kids from around the city who take our program throughout the year. So we had a big caravan of families who went out there. It was really very special. Marie and I got to set up the day before and were doing cartwheels on the Lawn. It was really cool.

To learn more, visit www.popfitkids.com