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Kids Star in Real-Life Video Game at New TriBeCa Gym

By Julie Shapiro

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

TRIBECA — Video games are often blamed for contributing to the problem of childhood obesity — but one TriBeCa gym is trying to make them part of the solution.

Exerblast, a new kid-friendly adventure gym in TriBeCa, combines the visual experience of a video game with a real-world obstacle course including avatar-led warm-ups and rotating climbing walls.

"If what's driving the sedentary nature of kids is the computer, what if we used the power of that gaming paradigm to get kids back into the 3-D world?" said Don Sunderland, CEO of Exerblast.

"Exercise should be fun," he added. "It should be play."

Since Exerblast opened its doors on Reade Street June 4, the two-floor, 6,400-square-foot studio has already become a hive of activity, with staff leading many groups of friends through the 45-minute sessions, called "Blasts."

Kids start by learning about the imaginary planet Botania, where the native plant people are in crisis because they have lost the "Xi energy" they rely on to survive.

The young athletes strap on iPods that monitor their steps — and will soon also measure their heart rate and the number of calories they burn — and do a series of playful exercises to generate Xi for Botania.

They practice the planet's traditional tribal dance, which includes a lot of squatting and reaching for the sky, in between jumping and balances. They hold hands while navigating a bouncy surface made of large exercise balls. They chase circles of light projected on the floor, pull themselves up a Climb-A-Tron rope structure and navigate a circular rock-climbing wall that rotates under their weight.

"They look like toys, but physically it's very demanding," Sunderland said.

At the end of the workout, the kids file into the dimly lit "Blast Down" room, where they stretch on yoga mats and do a relaxation meditation, directing all negative thoughts toward a black hole and all the energy they've built toward themselves and the world.

The sweaty, breathless kids who finished the Exerblast circuit recently proclaimed it much better than a playground or gym class.

"You get tired, but it's really fun," said Chase Behar, 9, who lives in TriBeCa.

"It's really cool how you have to get energy for the planet," added Lena Savino, 9, who lives in the Financial District. "It's a fun way to get motivated. [And] you get to climb things and run around."

The idea for Exerblast came from Kate Gyllenhaal, a personal trainer and TriBeCa mom, and her friend Susan Jennings, who wanted to get families to exercise together, as well as fight obesity and curtail technology addictions.

While there are plenty of gyms with options for toddlers and preschoolers to move around, Gyllenhaal said she couldn't find anything that appealed to elementary and middle school kids, along with their parents.

"If you don't get the parents involved, forget about it," Gyllenhaal said, since kids won't follow a healthy lifestyle unless their parents support it.

Gyllenhaal, whose official title is "chief fun officer," hopes to draw families to Exerblast twice a week and will offer a feature that allows participants to track their progress over time. She will also offer cooking and nutrition programs in a party room next to the gym.

Prices at Exerblast range from $25 for one session to $1,667 for a year membership that includes nine visits per month. Children must be 5 years old to participate, though Exerblast may have a special day for younger siblings soon.

"You may feel silly at first," warned Gyllenhaal, "but it's great."