On an unseasonably warm December morning, five mothers pushing strollers charge along the Inner Harbor promenade.
Chatting about clogged noses, diaper bag fashions and last night's thunderstorm, they park their babies and do triceps dips at a bench where two men drink coffee and gaze at the water.
Then the women, in their 30s, proceed up a slope in a silly-looking duck walk, at Stroller Strides instructor Amy Fallavena's command. "Quack, quack," someone says.
Past the Cheesecake Factory, the women grab exercise tubing and do biceps curls. Then, they launch into a chorus of "Itsy Bitsy Spider." Their kids, perched in a semicircle of strollers, watch without comment. Some snooze.
For Stroller Strides moms, all the world's a gym. And every baby in a stroller is a vehicle for strength training, whether the baby is awake or not.
The workout regimen, created in 2001 by a San Diego fitness instructor, ingeniously caters to the needs of mothers seeking exercise and companionship without the hassle of finding a baby sitter or joining a gym. The program also gets little ones out of the house and instills in them an early awareness of fitness values.
Since February, Stroller Strides classes, all taught by certified instructors who are moms themselves, have been offered locally in the Maryland Science Center, the Rodgers Forge tot lot, Westfield Shoppingtown Mall in Annapolis and Harper's Choice Village in Columbia, as well as a variety of other area locations.
On this morning, instructor Fallavena, mother of 2-year-old Aidan Borman, has moved the class from the Science Center to the Inner Harbor to take advantage of the delightful weather. Fallavena, 34, lives close by and knows what steps, poles, benches and patches of green will serve the group's needs as well as stair steppers and weight machines would.
Stroller Strides participant Chris Hope is the group's hero. She has Peter, 3, and 1-year-old identical twins, Jamie and Gregory. Hope, who lives in South Baltimore, estimates that her stroller, when crammed with kids and equipment, weighs 65 pounds. That's a good workout, especially with those running starts to get up ramps.
Without Stroller Strides, Hope says, "I probably wouldn't attend an exercise class because of the whole baby-sitting thing." Finding someone to mind three little kids while she exercises is a nearly impossible prospect, she says.
"This is great for me," Hope says. "I didn't do it when Peter was born." The workout is also a social lifeline for the stay-at-home mom. "Believe it or not, this is my time," she says.
The 50-minute Stroller Strides workout, a combination of power walking and intervals of body toning, is designed to improve cardiovascular health, strength and flexibility.
The idea for the routine came to Stroller Strides founder Lisa Druxman in a brainstorm as she worked out while pushing her infant son, Jacob, several years ago. "I invited some ladies in the neighborhood to join me, and from there it just took off," she says.
At first, Druxman says, "I just thought of the fitness premise. New moms wanted to get off weight." She soon realized that the social support afforded by Stroller Strides was equally important. As they exercised, the women Druxman instructed exchanged information on child care, nursing and other concerns, prompting her and colleagues to coin the phrase "support group exercise."
Today, about 8,000 Stroller Strides participants are enrolled at more than 100 locations nationwide, says Druxman, who is eight months pregnant with her second child and still teaches three classes a week.
The program has expanded to include play groups for children, toy drives, movie mornings, nights out for moms and CPR classes. "We get letters all the time, [including those from] people who were relieved from very severe postpartum depression" through Stroller Strides, Druxman says.
The classes are "very social," Fallavena says. "Most of us didn't know each other before. We've created friends." Often, after class, the moms will reconvene at Spoons in South Baltimore for coffee, while their kids play on the comfy furniture.
Past the paddle boats. Past the pavilions. Past bemused city workers. The moms, well-provisioned with pretzels, raisins, granola bars, juice boxes and water, complete their bracing turn around the harbor.
Aidan laughs at the pigeons. He shouts "Go, go, mommies!" Diego Andaluz, the 6-month-old son of Yadira Martinez, naps, then cries when he loses sight of his mommy. Elizabeth Fenn's daughter Kiley, who is 13 months old, kicks her foot in imitation of the exercise routine. Sarah Keith's 9-month-old daughter, Molly, sleeps off a cold.
The moms talk and stride, perform jumping jacks, run up and down bleacher steps, do calf raises while grasping stroller handlebars.
"Mothers, you look so cute!" a passer-by exclaims.
Toward the end of the workout, as the participants prepare for a series of abdominal exercises, another mother pushing infant twins comes to inquire about Stroller Strides.
Cleo Stamatos has kept a reminder for the class on her refrigerator. Finally, her schedule is working out so she can take the class with Anna and Michael, 8-month-old twins.
She's looking forward to a class where "you meet other babies and moms," Stamatos says. It's much better than going to the gym, she adds. "I'm sure I'll pick up tips ... and there's another mom with twins, so that's an added bonus."
Finding a class
Stroller Strides classes are offered throughout the week in Baltimore, Columbia and Annapolis. Single class passes are $15, but rates decrease for multiple passes. A membership entitles participants to unlimited classes. Rates vary slightly in each area. Call for more information:
* Baltimore: 800-829-0416.
* Columbia: 800-866-6407.
* Annapolis: 443-995-6248.
For class and fee schedules, and more information about Stroller Strides, go to www. strollerstrides.net / baltimore or www.strollerstrides.com.