When little Johnny peeks under the tinseled fir on Christmas Day looking for the latest Tickle Me Elmo, he may be shocked at what he finds.The perennially cute “Sesame Street” doll may have been replaced with some less-than-adorable iron.Yes, the hottest gifts this holiday season, say toy marketing experts, may not even be toys. Think dumbbells, treadmills, an obstacle course, a punching bag and other fitness equipment – even for the very young set.First Fitness, a division of Aqua-Leisure Industries, is one of the leading manufacturers of fitness toys for youths, selling its products online and through Toys R Us, Wal-Mart, Kmart, KB Toys and other mass retailers. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREPettersson scores another winner, Canucks beat KingsThis season’s line of kid’s fitness products, targeted at children as young as 4, includes the Kid’s First Treadmill (suggested retail price $109.99) intended to develop cardio health and overall strength; Kid’s First Exercise Bike ($79.95), which comes with an electronic fitness monitor; Kid’s First Air Walker ($79.95), which mimics adult elliptical machines; and a 1/2- or 1-pound dumbbell set ($8.95), that helps build strength and muscle coordination.So why the recent trend in gym equipment for youngsters?In part, it’s a response to the ominous figures: Two out of every three Americans are overweight or obese according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a statistic and strong factor in this growing trend. And Though the country’s recent preoccupation with maintaining a green, healthy lifestyle also proves a significant trigger.it doesn’t hurt that there’s been an increase in endorsements of nutritional products and activities by celebrity athletes over the past couple of years, said Angel Morales, a children’s marketing consultant and head of the international division of Creative Consumer Concepts marketing agency in the United States.“It is very easy to market these items to kids, provided the message is kept positive and also is targeted to parents,” Morales said. “If parents live a healthy lifestyle, they are likely to follow the health and fitness trends for their kids.”But just how early is too early for toddlers to get pumped up? “Young kids should not be lifting weights, period,” said Dr. Michael Goran, associate director of and professor in the department of preventive medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, professor of preventitive medicine and director of the USC Center for Obesity and Metabolic Health at the University of Southern California.“They should be playing, climbing and using their own body weight,” said Goran, the father of a 2-year-old girl. “My daughter loves swinging and hanging from bars with her arms.”Dr. Wendy Slusser, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at UCLA, said preschool-age children should spend one hour in free time play and one hour in organized play daily to develop their skills.“Younger children are less likely to engage in any kind of repetitive fitness,” she said. “Their attention span to stay on a tricycle isn’t long, they’ll move on to another activity.”A ball works well with a child of any age for movement and hand-eye coordination,” she said.“The goal is you always want kids to move around as much as possible,” whether through activities with other children or through free play, Slusser said. The children’s exercise equipment alone may not cause harm to a child, she said, but the repetition can.“But it’d be hard to find a kid that would do it repetitively,” Slusser said. “I just don’t see the advantage to a preschooler in, say, lifting weights. It’s not developing any skills.”That’s why Precluding the release of kids’ fitness lines such as First Fitness, items such as toys that keep kids active – Frisbees, jump ropes, balls and dancing games – continue to be popular among young children, Morales said, despite the influx of more involved exercise equipment.Though Goran recommends the midteen years as the best age for children to begin a fitness regimen, Slusser said by the age of 5 kids develop the motor skills to delve into rigorous activities such as the breaststroke and the crawl in swimming.Goran and Slusser agree, however, that parents should stick to the basics.“Encourage the child to enjoy fitness – and if it’s repetitive, it’s not enjoyable,” Slusser said.Carley Dryden, (310) 540-5511, Ext. 380; [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!