LITTLE ROCK Rebecca McCormick had several concerns as she stood among 19 other mothers in McCain Mall, waiting for the mall's first Stroller Strides exercise class to begin.
Would her 21-month-old son, Michael, behave?
Would she have to carry him a long distance? He weighs about 26 pounds. And once she took him out of the stroller, how would she ever get him back into it?
Would she be able to keep up with the workout? "I've gotten a little out of shape," she said.
One thing the Jacksonville resident didn't have to worry about was being stared at by strangers.
As Stroller Strides began its first in-the-mall workout class at 9 a.m. on a recent Thursday, the only other people around were a few fast-moving mall walkers. Five gray-haired women in athletic shoes barely slowed their steps as they rounded a corner and saw the unusual crowd of strollers and women in workout togs.
Twenty mothers had brought more than 20 children to the workout. Several of the women were pregnant, and a few pushed double-wide strollers bearing two children apiece. But the mall walkers bustled on, laughing about the "cute little lazybones" in the strollers as they went.
The new Stroller Strides exercise classes meet from 9 to 10 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays on the upper level of the North Little Rock indoor mall. Led by certified instructors, stroller-pushing students move in a herd around the top floor of the shopping center, past the garage-door grills of businesses that won't open until 10 a.m. or so.
Sometimes the women do leg lifts in near unison as they push their strollers. Sometimes the herd stops, brakes are set, and these grown women sing about monkeys or milkshakes as they stretch long, rubbery tubing this way and that.
Offering full-body workouts for parents whose children are at least 6 weeks old, the Stroller Strides mall classes are an offshoot of a business that has been meeting outdoors in Little Rock's Allsopp Park for two years.
Students pay a $75 registration fee, then $50 a month for unlimited workouts (or $35 for two evening sessions a week). Class options include 9 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in Allsopp Park, taught by Meg Needham; 9 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays in McCain Mall, taught by Janet Gilchrist; and 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays in Allsopp Park taught by owner Susan Robinson, the Stroller Strides franchise holder.
Robinson said classes in the city park usually draw six to 12 students, but she expects the Mc-Cain Mall workouts will grow larger.
"We're going to have a lot of cross-over between North Little Rock and Little Rock," she said, "and since this is an indoor location, it could be on the higher end on those sweltering summer days that we have."
Simon Property Group, which owns McCain Mall, has also partnered with Stroller Strides franchisees in other cities around the nation, Robinson said. The mall's Simon Kidgits program (normally $5) is free for Stroller Strides members.
"We're thrilled to have them," said Lisa Meyer, mall marketing director. "I wish I could come out here and exercise, too." But she has to be at her desk by 8:30 a.m. Also, she doesn't have a stroller riding baby.
For this workout, baby and stroller are required equipment.
McCormick didn't have to worry about convincing Michael to get back into his stroller, because the mothers were never asked to lift their hefty little babies out. Instead, instructors kept the children entertained by loaning them rattles and toys and making their mothers surprise them.
But after about 20 minutes of being wheeled around the upper floor of the mall, Michelle Nail's 2-year-old son, Atlas, got fed up with sharing a double wide stroller with his little sister, Mars.
Robinson had circled up the mothers in an empty space that once was the entry to M.M. Cohn.
"No, no, no," Atlas said, his volume rising with each indignant syllable as his mother bent to set the brakes. "Stop, stop, stop." Beside him, 8-month-old Mars wrinkled her nose and looked worried.
But then all the mothers began to leap and sidestep around the parked strollers, a blur of singing women. They were going to Kentucky, they sang, to see a senorita with flowers in her hair, and make a milkshake. They would shake it, shake it, shake it.
Atlas' mouth snapped shut. He rolled his eyes to follow each leaping woman as she passed. Little Mars began giggling and kicking her feet, but Atlas held on to his dumbfounded annoyance for two repetitions of the song. By his mother's third milkshake shimmy, he forgot he was peeved and began to laugh out loud.
"Mommy is so silly," Nail told her children.
Meanwhile, she and the other women had become sweaty and a little red in the face from exertion.
Gilchrist, who has a doctorate in nutrition, is certified by the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America to lead group exercise. While three certified instructors led the sample class in the mall, ordinarily she'll be in charge by herself. But she expects to have help leading the mall classes from regular exercisers, and other women in the group are training to certify.
Women in the class typically help one another, and the general attitude is accepting of disruptions, she said. The goofy, catchy songs are used carefully to keep children distracted, but "we're all moms and we've all been through the stage where they scream for no reason," she said.
"I have a newborn, and sometimes she'll fuss and I'll just break rank for a minute until she falls back to sleep. It's totally OK for moms to stop and do what they have to do. If we see that we have a lot of them fussing we'll just switch and do something silly like 'Going to Kentucky' and that makes them all laugh."
The approach worked on young Michael McCormick, Rebecca reported, rose-cheeked after her first class.
"It was a good workout, but I was happy I could keep up with it," she said.
Fawn Rechkemmer, who has been bringing her two children, ages 1 and 2, to classes in Allsopp Park for about a month, advised McCormick to expect to feel some effects.
"I'm never sore the day-of," Rechkemmer said, "but the next day you get sore, and it's always your mommy muscles - things that you use a lot when you're a mommy."
Mommy muscles, she said, include abdominal obliques, which McCormick might expect to feel "when you're picking up kids and putting down kids and picking up car seats," Rechkemmer said. Also "we work our arms a lot and our shoulders because we're always picking up kids."
A free accessory of Stroller Strides, the Luna Moms Club, includes online chatting, two organized play dates a month and a mom's night out, Rechkemmersaid. "We also sort of unofficially made a baby-sitting co-op.
"It's not only the workout" she said, "it's also the fellowship of-the-mommyhood type thing. We share ideas. And it's just nice to have an adult to talk to."
ActiveStyle, Pages 23, 28 on 07/27/2009