COLUMBIA — The battle is down to two kids with dart blasters.
Weapons in hand, they run to opposite walls of the gym and take refuge behind a stack of mats. One aims — and misses.
He tries again, and this time the rubber dart clips his partner in the back.
The game underway is a mash-up of laser tag and capture the flag using foam toys. It is one of several played during a new fitness program called Battle Club at the Tiger Academy of Gymnastics in north Columbia.
The club keeps kids engaged and moving while teaching them valuable life skills, said Craig Butler, co-owner of the gym. He created the game to give kids a new way to exercise and have fun and to expand the gym's clientele.
The kids "love it," Butler said. "It gives them something to work for and keeps them interested.”
A simple objective
At 7:45 every Tuesday and Thursday evening, the atmosphere at the Tiger Academy of Gymnastics changes. Lights are dimmed, the music switches to an adventure Pandora station and a fog machine is flipped on, all adding an air of mystery.
Let the game begin.
The objective is simple: The kids split up into two teams and must work together to capture the yellow or orange cone. They try to steal it from the other team and bring it back to their own base.
"Base" is a stack of mats on both the north and south ends of the gym.
Although the purpose is clear, the game is complicated. As they are trying to retrieve the cone, the kids must dodge the darts of their opponents.
If they are hit, they must return the blaster to their own base, jump into a foam pit and "swim" across. This is known as the "recovery cycle."
Each game lasts around 10 minutes. Butler said the teams play at least nine variations of the game with Butler as referee. He wears a headset and coaches the kids, keeping track of the action and giving them words of encouragement.
As the game proceeds, battle coins are awarded for positive behavior and achievement. At the end of the hour, everyone counts their coins.
Every month, the kid with the most coins receives a trophy.
A new idea
Butler came up with Battle Club while shopping for a dart blaster to give his nephew last Christmas.
“Why not try and make that into a fitness program where kids can kind of act like they are in a real video game instead of just sitting on the couch?” he said.
Butler knew he had the perfect space in his gymnastics academy.
As the idea circulated around the gym and beyond, word got out. Now, more than 20 kids participate each week, though the numbers vary.
Games are held twice a week and cost $50 each month for one night a week and $90 for two. Gymnastics students are admitted for half-price, and they can bring friends for $15 each.
Everyone supplies foam darts, and children must wear safety goggles. Butler offers a free trial game. More information is available on the club's website.
Butler also schedules overnight Battle Club lock-ins from 8:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m., The kids can play games for hours, and later, movies are projected onto the wall. The next one is May 23.
Families can also rent out the gym for an hour and a half for a Battle Club-themed birthday party.
A new kind of fitness
According to the Missouri Foundation for Health, 31 percent of children ages 10 to 17 in Missouri are overweight or obese. Fifty percent of children do not get the recommended amount of exercise, according to the same study.
The standard is 60 minutes of physical activity every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Battle Club keeps kids constantly moving during the hour. By the end, they are breathing hard and sweating.
"I know you guys are getting tired," Butler urges near the end of the hour. "Fight through it."
Laurie Painter heard about Battle Club from a neighbor whose daughter takes gymnastics lessons at the Academy. Painter's son Jeff, 9, joined Battle Club the week after it started.
"We did it for exercise. In winter, he can't get outside to play," Painter said.
She said that Battle Club has worked for her son and that she has seen some weight loss in the past couple of months.
"It's magnificent. He looks forward to every night that we come," she said.
The club is not limited to kids. Although the ages usually range from 6 to 15, parents can also play. Butler said that during the first three months, about five dads have joined in.
Zach Hubb is one of them. He brings his stepson, Spencer Baer, to Battle Club every week. When he gets the chance, Hubb jumps right in.
"I love it. It's a way to be a kid again," he said.
Butler earned a degree in nutrition and fitness from MU. After graduating, he worked in financial services for 13 years.
Last year, when the Tiger Academy of Gymnastics was asked to leave the Tiger Performance Center, Butler and his wife, Amie, decided to take over ownership.
Because of his educational background, Butler knows how important it is for kids to associate fun with fitness activities.
"What happens is that over time video games are hard to compete with because they are so cool now," Butler explained. "When a kid can get the same kind of gratification from sitting in front of the TV playing a video game as he can going outside and playing, it causes problems."
The program is about more than just exercise, Butler said. Every week, Butler talks to the kids about accountability and the importance of protecting your reputation. The kids also have to work together in a team environment.
In the first three months, Butler said, the program has seen tremendous growth. Thirty-three children participated in February and 36 in March.
Although a few of the participants also take gymnastics lessons at the gym, Butler said that many people have heard about the club by word of mouth.
Once 24 kids are signed up for the Tuesday and Thursday club, Butler said, a Monday and Wednesday class will be added. Once that class hits 24, the club will be full.
Battle Club "was just an idea that we had to only utilize our assets more," Butler said. "There are only so many kids that are going to do gymnastics. So coming up with this was a really neat way to help us grow our business.”
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.