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Pitaiyo instructor works to empower kids


Fitness guru Alex Kelly–Maartens works in a gym, but her teaching extends into the community with special classes intended to empower children.

In 2006, Kelly–Maartens created Pitaiyo, a unique exercise routine that blends Pilates, tai chi and yoga. Pitaiyo, which stands for “Put It Together All In Your Orbit,” is designed to enhance physical and emotional health, she said.

After launching her adult classes, Kelly–Maartens began to create a modified version of Pitaiyo for her favorite age group—children.

While in high school, Kelly–Maartens was a children’s tennis coach, and she said her “true love” for kids began then.

“At the time, I had really short hair,” she said. “There was a little girl in the program who had beautiful long hair, and she came in the next week with an identical haircut to mine. I was shocked I could have that effect on someone. They wanted to emulate me. I realized I really needed to be careful in how I presented myself to them.”

Soon after establishing adult Pitaiyo classes, a modified version of the workout was born. It’s called Pitaiyo Kids: Smart. Happy. Strong.

Most classes are taught at American Family Fitness in Spotsylvania County, but Kelly–Maartens also has taught young students at Girl Scout meetings, schools and other locations.

“It’s awesome to be with them,” Kelly–Maartens said of her young students. “I use Pitaiyo to teach them that they are all smart in something, and they are all strong. And happiness is a choice.”


The Smart Happy Strong classes are divided into three age groups. Children under age 5 can experience Pitaiyo in a “Mommy and Me” class or in their own separate class. In this age, Pitaiyo is centered on special exercise songs.

The next level, for 6- to 8-year-olds, focuses on imaginary play and storytelling, and self-awareness and self-esteem are introduced.

The final stage of Smart Happy Strong is for 9- to 13-year-olds. Here, the focus is on teaching children to enjoy exercising. Each student gets the opportunity to lead the class. Mental strength is also stressed.

“There’s more leadership and teaching to others in the final group,” Kelly–Maartens said. “There are always those girls in the front of the room that are very vocal, but I target the quiet girls in the back. I like to give them the opportunity to feel empowered and show them that they can do this. I hope it stays with them.”


Heidi Sistrunk works with Kelly–Maartens at American Family Fitness, and her 11-year-old daughter is a Pitaiyo student.

“I know my daughter really enjoys the class,” Sistrunk said. “She feels stronger. It’s a wonderful challenge for children at that age.”

Sistrunk said she has noticed a growing interest in the program.

“There’s a large number of children coming in and asking for the classes,” she said. “It allows the kids to connect to other children in the class, especially the girls.”

Pitaiyo also can be a shared experience for parents and children. Lauren Whiter does Pitaiyo with Kelly–Maartens each week and enrolled her 7-year-old daughter in Smart Happy Strong, so her daughter, too, could enjoy the benefits.

“I know my daughter has learned a lot from it,” Whiter said. “She can tell you the names of different yoga poses and muscle groups. She really loves it, and she thinks it’s cool because I do it, too.”

Thinking back on her own experiences, dating back to her time as a tennis coach, Kelly–Maartens focuses on sharing a positive body-image message for the kids in her classes.

Depending on the group, this message is presented in different ways. Students in one class received pieces of fruit as takeaways. The fruit had messages such as “I am ‘pear’fect the way I am,” “I’m plum perfect” and “I’m bananas for my body.” The messages were written on colored paper attached to the fruit.

In addition to the regular scheduled classes at American Family Fitness, Kelly–Martins has been invited to show the workout to Daisy groups, girls’ youth groups and participants in parks and recreation programs. In these lessons, she focuses on promoting a positive body image.


American Family Fitness Director Trish Blackwell joined Kelly–Maartens to teach a group of girls recently at Parkside Elementary School. They administered a body image quiz to the girls, asking them to define their best attributes.

“It was astounding the length of time it took the girls to write what they liked about themselves,” Kelly–Maartens said.

She and Blackwell then asked the girls to participate in a circle of confidence in which each girl said something positive about the girl sitting on their right.

Most of the students Kelly–Maartens works with are girls, but she said Pitaiyo is for boys, too. Recently, she was invited to some elementary school classrooms to give students—boys and girls—a break from SOL testing.

“We tried to show them different ways to be mentally ready for the tests,” she said.

Kelly–Maartens has plans to expand Pitaiyo to reach more students—young and old—possibly by getting grant funding to support more community-based classes.

“It’s a slow-growing, organic company,” she said. “Life gets in the way, and [Smart Happy Strong] is in its infant stages. A definite goal for 2013 is to get some grants working. ”

Frances Womble: healthyliving@freelance