Coach Brandon McIntosh leads the Fit Kids class in a running drill Feb. 4 at Southwest Recreation Complex in Largo.
LARGO – On the day after the Super Bowl, Brandon McIntosh had his work cut out for him.
The participants of the Fit Kids program, children and their parents alike, were slow to circle around their coach as they gathered on the Southwest Recreation Complex field Feb. 4.
“Raise your hand if you had a soda last night,” McIntosh said, adding about chicken wings to the poll. “Raise your hand if you had over four pieces of pizza last night.”
“I had three!” one child volunteered.
McIntosh, a recreation program supervisor for the city of Largo, started the class with two minutes of running in place. But after only a few moments, he cut in.
“Stop, stop, stop. Guys, what’s the deal today?” he asked, demanding better form from his sluggish and talkative class. “I want to see the knees up. Now you got three minutes. Ready? Go! Run!”
McIntosh said started the Fit Kids program, which meets on Mondays and Thursdays nights at 5:30, because he saw the epidemic of childhood obesity firsthand.
“I saw kids in the summer time with sweaters and hoodies on,” he explained. “I’d ask them, ‘Why are you wearing that? It’s hot outside.’”
The children said they were covering up their weight. They didn’t want to be bullied. He realized that their weight was causing depression and low self-esteem.
“I was seeing kids run around here not really happy with their bodies,” McIntosh said. “Some of them starve themselves, which is so bad.”
The realization was eye-opening, he said. McIntosh, who has a background in sports management for major league baseball teams, grieved to see children so stressed out by adult problems.
“A kid should be a kid,” he said. “My program emphasizes making fitness fun, in a way that it’s not for punishment.’
Instead of punishing kids with push-ups or laps for poor behavior, McIntosh makes the activity engaging. He mixes the very basic workouts with a bit of competition, camaraderie and his own kid magnetism that was immediately apparent to Chrisoula Kiriazis when she first brought his two boys to his flag football program four years ago.
“He has lots of energy; kids are really attracted to him. They really listen to what he says,” she explained. “He was incredibly motivating, an optimistic coach.”
When McIntosh started the Fit Kids program in May 2010, Kiriazis signed up her boys, Winchester and Zachary, who are now 12 and 10, respectively.
“I had never heard of a program that talked to kids about nutrition as well as did exercise with them. All activities I’d been to with my kids involved exercise followed by candy or junk food offered as a reward for performance,” Kiriazis said. “It drove me absolutely bonkers as a doctor.”
Kiriazis, who works full-time as a primary care physician, said she saw her own kids growing in confidence, strength and agility through the program. She thought McIntosh’s idea should be expanded.
“Brandon began a program that built on the momentum of what’s happening in this country,” she said. “It’s not just taking them to the soccer field, it’s about teaching them how they should be eating.”
Fit Kids also is unique in that it encourages parents to join their children in the workout. But McIntosh said he was continually stymied in gaining parental participation on the nutritional aspect of the program.
“The kid doesn’t buy the food, the kid doesn’t have a job, so the parent has to be on board too,” he said.
He provided the children with food logs to take home, but wanted a better way to communicate the principles of healthy eating to their parents.
In April 2012, Kiriazis suggested they partner up to write a straightforward, informative book that would carry McIntosh’s simple message. They met every weekend for about six months before self-publishing “Fit Kids for Life: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy Children” in November.
The book is useful at all levels and ages, said Kiriazis explaining that her adult and senior patients have said they’ve found the book helpful. While she’s not a pediatrician, treating parents is part of the continuum of promoting a healthy lifestyle.
“As a parent, you’re probably not thinking, ‘Well I have to take care of myself and be healthy because that’s important for my kids.’ But that’s really the truth. If you’re not healthy, you can’t take care of your kids,” she said.
McIntosh said he’s spreading the word about his fitness program through local pediatricians. He’d like to some day tour hospitals and other recreation centers to reach a greater audience with his message of fun, fitness and healthy eating.
“I like changing kids’ lives. That’s our future,” he said.
For more about the program or to purchase the book “Be a Fit Kid,” visit www.beafitkid.org. Proceeds from the $10 book are donated back to charitable causes.