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For super-sized kids, a McGym is new on the US menu

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US fast-food giant McDonald's, often accused of catering to expanding waistlines, has a new item on its menu for kids -- gyms.
The company is testing R Gyms -- in-restaurant mini-gyms with stationary bicycles hooked to video games, obstacle courses and aerobics exercises -- in seven of its restaurants to help customers age 4 to 12 fight flab as they ingest calories.

The latest R Gym, named for the restaurant's advertising mascot Ronald McDonald, opened in California earlier this month and the company is hoping to spread the concept across the United States.

"What we've been able to do with the R Gym is to provide our youngest customers with a more relevant contemporary experience, including games and activities that are more suitable to children's lifestyles today and of course tomorrow," Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald's told AFP.

But critics say the mini-gyms are but an attempt by the burger giant to polish its image at a time when Americans are increasingly aware of the health hazards linked to obesity.

"The number of calories that a child is likely to burn in one of those gyms is quite small compared to what they can eat, even in a small meal," said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

It would take a child, for example, more than three hours of exercise to burn off a 200-calorie milkshake.

The new gyms would eventually replace play areas currently available in some 5,500 McDonald's outlets throughout the country. McDonald's is also considering R Gyms for its restaurants overseas.

But specialists like Brownell warn the gyms could have an adverse effect in that they could lull people into believing they can eat more since they're exercising.

"One risk is that the children or parents overestimate how much benefit they are getting from the exercise and feel licensed to eat more -- a larger order of French fries or an ice cream cone," he said.

Proud answers to such criticism saying that McDonald's has "always been concerned about health."

"McDonald's has been providing nutritious menu options to all of our customers for 52 plus years," she said.

According to health experts, about one third of children in the United States are either overweight or obese and trends are showing the numbers increasing.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (
CDC) recently identified fast food as a significant factor in the country's obesity epidemic. According to the CDC, nearly 19 percent of American children between the ages of 6 and 11 are overweight and some 14 percent are in that category before the age of 5.

Brownell said with that in mind, McDonald's R Gyms could be an attempt by the company to ward off class-action lawsuits from public-health advocates who see fast food as their new target after tobacco.

"McDonald's is not in the business of getting the population more physically active but if through these maneuvers they appear to be on the right side of the issue, they may be able to forestall litigation, legislation that hurts them and just bad public opinion in general," he said.

Jocelyne Zablit