It was close to 10 a.m. Thursday, and the parking lot at Centennial Park's Pavilion H was filled with mothers hopping out of minivans and unloading strollers. Children ranging in age from six weeks to 4 years old were buckled into place and wheeled to a circle, where they joined others to begin a session led by Elkridge resident Joy Emery.
For the next hour, while their children watched from their strollers, 13 moms conducted a workout that had them running up hills, doing push-ups on the curb and performing other strength- and tone-building exercises — many accompanying themselves by singing children's songs like "Wheels on the Bus."
"I run it like a boot camp," said Emery, owner of the Fit4Mom franchise that offers the program, called Stroller Strides. Emery said she discovered the program four years ago when she attended a session; she learned the owner was selling it and grabbed the local franchise.
"She had only two members when I bought it," said Emery, who took classes to become certified to teach. "It helped me get my teaching groove."
Now there are about 40 to 50 mothers enrolled in the program, with about 20 routinely attending the sessions that run Tuesday through Friday. She has hired two instructors to help teach classes when needed and has recently expanded her territory to include Maple Lawn.
"I am happy to grow out there," Emery said. "I just gradually grew. I'm glad I did it that way — it has never been a stressor. It's always been fun."
Children's voices often join Emery's as she counts repetitions or cheers the mothers on. Occasionally, Emery keeps the children distracted or calms little cries as the moms go through their paces.
"James learned how to count from Stroller Strides," said Dana Gorelik, who started attending the program a year ago after the birth of twin boys, James and Sam.
"I gained a lot of weight, 70 pounds, and when I had them, I didn't lose any of it," said Gorelik of her pregnancy with twins. "When I first started [with Stroller], I couldn't even run up the hill."
Now Gorelik is preparing to run her first half-marathon in May. She has lost 57 pounds. And while she has improved her diet and joined a gym, she credits Stroller Strides for her success.
After pregnancy, she said, "you're the heaviest you've ever been and you're feeling really bad about yourself. [The other mothers] are all super-supportive and great. I was never an athlete. I never played sports. I became a runner just by doing this."
Andrea Qureshi learned about Stroller Strides from her neighbor. The mother of a 9-month-old, Qureshi started attending sessions a few weeks ago.
"It feels good just to get out and see the sun," Qureshi said. "It feels really good after all the time being pregnant and up all night."
Throughout the hour workout, the mothers chat, sharing stories and asking about each other's families. The group gets together occasionally in the evening and many schedule play dates for their children. After the sessions, many of them head to the playground to let their children have a chance to run around.
"For first-time moms, I tell them, 'Do not let this class stress you out. Do what you need to do,' " Emery said. "It is very good for new moms to come … so they can ask questions. It is definitely a place you feel a sense of camaraderie."
With her own children now 4 and 7, Emery said getting involved with Stroller Strides "was such a blessing. I get to take my daughter with me and work out."
When Leah Baker moved to Columbia more than two years ago from New Jersey, she took a class and "fell in love."
"I knew it was for me," said Baker, who became an instructor last year. "I met my best friends here, and I could get back in shape."