The patter of little feet may be stomping to the aerobic beat, thanks to a new exercise trend among children.

Instead of being budding couch potatoes, more and more preschool- and elementary-age children are joining classes or popping in videos that have them following aerobic dance routines.Fitness experts are hailing the new trend as something that's long overdue. Estimates are that more than 60 percent of children in the United States are inactive - and at-risk for such health problems as obesity and cardiovascular disease.

A lack of exercise has health consequences, said Van Davis, fitness coordinator of the Waco Family Y.

Not only are kids heavier than generations ago, but they have higher cholesterol levels and are generally much less physically fit.

"The main thing is endurance," Davis said. "A lot of kids get tired right away" when asked to run relays at school.

Exercise helps kids improve the fitness levels, improve their cardiovascular fitness so they have healthy hearts and helps them develop better coordination, she said.

And, Davis said, aerobics has another benefit. Besides burning off blubber, it is noncompetitive.

Aerobic exercise has no scores, and no winners or losers. Therefore, an out-of-shape youngster doing aerobics won't be belittled because he can't catch the ball, make a home room or because he's always the last runner to finish a race, Davis said.

Those doing tapes at home have it even better. They are working out in a private setting, away from the eyes of other kids who could jeer them.

If kids are going to watch television, plunking a fitness tape in the VCR is a way to get them off the couch and physically active, said Davis. "It's a great workout for a kid," she added.

Jim Craft of Minnesota-based Collage Video, publishers of "The Complete Guide to Exercise Videos" mail-order catalog, said children's exercise video tapes are part of a growing trend.

"Five years ago, we couldn't give these things away," he said of fitness videos geared to children. "It certainly is more (popular) than it was even a few years back."

The videos are geared to small fry - as young as ages 2 to 5 years, in some cases. The routines are simplified to be age-appropriate so little ones can follow along.

And instead of Jane Fonda or Tamilee Webb, kids have their own stars. They're tickled when Elmo, the "Sesame Street" muppet who became last Christmas season's hottest-selling doll, leads them in "Elmocize."

"Elmo has done real well for us because of his popularity," Craft said.

To young girls, even Elle Macpherson can't top Barbie. The fashion doll becomes animated, and really moves, when she's on her own exercise video.

Parent-child tapes are also en vogue. "Workout with Mommy & Me" and one featuring "Daddy & Me" are intergenerational routines.

"Parents can do the activities with the kids in the living room," Davis said. "That would make a great parent-child bonding time."

Whether enrolling a child in a kid-oriented exercise class or buying an exercise video, Davis urges parents to keep fun in mind.

"We never mention the word `exercise' too much," Davis said about the classes for children at the Family Y. To young participants, the various exercise activities featured in class is just "play," she said.

Yet, the kids may be going through obstacle courses, running relays, stepping, jumping or hopping to music during a given class. Sounds just like - shhh!, don't tell the kids - the e-word. Exercise.