A child obesity fitness programme goes online during the COVID-19 crisis to help families and kids get exercise

By Chris Welsch

A series of coincidences led Pelle Plesner to teach an exercise class for obese children in a Copenhagen suburb, but that chance led to a new career.

He had been working as a spin-class instructor once a week, when he was asked to fill in at a class for kids. It was an eye-opening experience.

“I just really felt for these children and the problems they had, and their parents had pretty limited resources for helping them,” he says. “I thought, ‘I can do this, I can make a programme that would be successful and attractive for families.’”

In 2007, Pelle designed a multicomponent programme that provides twice-weekly exercise sessions, nutritional coaching and support for families, motivational coaching, and a variety of social events to help people support each other. His FitforKids, a non-profit organisation, is free for children and families. Volunteers teach the classes and track the progress of the children, making FitforKids a low-cost, effective programme, appealing to local governments keen to reduce the health problems and costs associated with obesity.

Expanding in Europe

Now FitforKids is offered in 40% of the municipalities in Denmark and has programmes in Italy and Portugal, with plans – and funding from the EU’s Erasmus programme – to expand into Germany and Turkey in the next two years.

FitforKids is a past winner of the European Investment Bank Institute’s annual Social Innovation Tournament. The tournament supports entrepreneurs who are making an impact on social, ethical or environmental issues.

The COVID-19 crisis forced FitforKids to make rapid adjustments.

“First we wanted to make sure that everyone was OK throughout our organisation, that no one was stressed,” Pelle says. “Then we had our team leaders reach out to all our families by phone, we did some coaching sessions, and we started going digital, presenting training sessions online, mainly through Facebook.”

>@FitForKids
Pelle Plesner created a fitness programme that would be successful and attractive for the whole family. ©FitForKids

Many of the families in the programme have a low income, some are immigrants, and often it’s difficult to make time for the training sessions even under normal circumstances.

“In a situation like the lockdown, when your life is disrupted, holding onto anything that gives you a sense of normality is really important,” he adds. “We wanted to let our families know we were still here for them.”

Now that the lockdown is over and the Danish government is allowing exercise for groups of fewer than 10 people, FitforKids is back doing face-to-face training outdoors. He says the energy of the returning groups was jubilant.

Pelle compared it to the feeling of getting outside on the first nice day after a long, cold winter.

“Everyone was jumping for joy,” he says.