- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008

The route goes past orangutans, lions and crocodiles and the pace is breakneck.

No, it’s not an episode of “The Amazing Race” in some remote African location. We’re talking Stroller Strides at the National Zoo, right smack in the middle of the District.

The participants?

New moms - working off their pregnancy pounds with strength and cardio exercises - and their babies, who spend the hour in strollers eating Cheerios, playing with their feet and, occasionally, shedding a tear or 10.

“We don’t care if your child cries the whole time,” says Amanda Marr Book, who runs Stroller Strides in the District. “Being worried about what people think is the last thing a new mom needs. … This is a safe zone.”

Stroller Strides, which was started in San Diego by mommy-fitness guru Lisa Druxman, has since its 2001 inception grown by leaps and bounds and now can be found in hundreds of locations nationwide. In the D.C. area alone, there are at least 20 locations.

What’s the appeal?

“I come because there is no way I’m going to push myself this hard if I’m working out alone,” says class participant Abigail Sharon on a recent morning while waiting next to the Kids’ Farm exhibit at the National Zoo for a class to begin.

Next to Ms. Sharon, comfortably seated in a jogger stroller, is her 1-year-old daughter, Eden, playing with her hat.

A moment later, instructors Sarah Boone and Ms. Marr Book as well as the class participants - three moms and their children seated in strollers (any kind will do, but sturdy wheels are a plus) - are off and running.

“Bring it up to a level five on a scale of one to 10,” shouts Ms. Boone, encouraging the participants to push themselves and their heart rates.

After a short run and warm-up, it’s time for speedy sprints, skips and shuffles.

“It’s like boot camp with cardio bursts,” says Ms. Boone of the 60-minute workout. The cardio bursts increase fitness level and calorie-burning, she adds.

Speaking of which, a one-hour Stroller Strides class invites participants to burn between 300 and 400 calories.

“It depends on how much energy people expend, so it does vary by person to person,” Ms. Marr Book says. “But that’s about the average.”

Ms. Sharon says she has lost the 47 pounds she gained during her pregnancy. She attributes her weight loss success and strength - at least partly - to Stroller Strides.

Fitness expert to the stars and author of “Body After Baby,” Jackie Keller - she has helped people like Uma Thurman lose their baby weight - says the program can be beneficial because it does so much more than hit fitness goals.

“There is no one way to do it. No magical pills or program,” says Ms. Keller, who is not connected to Stroller Strides. “But something that is inexpensive, communal and accessible is going to be beneficial.”

Stroller Strides is all that, Ms. Sharon says. The zoo location is close to her house, it is $15 a class (you get a 20 percent discount if you sign up for 10 lessons at once; there is no annual membership cost) and participants share information about everything from fitness goals to child-rearing techniques, she says.

“You get advice from other moms,” Ms. Sharon says. “And that’s better than going to the doctor.”

Like when Johanna Kreisel, mother of 6-month-old Juliet, during a stair climb next to the seal tank complains that her balance is off since pregnancy, Ms. Marr Book responds quickly (and while running full-steam): “Tighten your core. It will help counteract it.”

The rest of the hour involves more running, several strength exercises using elastic tubing and singing. Yep, when doing their wall sit (a quadriceps exercise done by pushing your back against the wall and bending your legs at a 90-degree angle) outside the Great Ape House, the women sing “If you’re happy and you know it … .”

“The kids love it, but the singing is not just for them. It also helps you keep your mind off the burn,” Ms. Marr Book says.

Another thing that makes both mommy and baby happy is mommy’s fitness level, Ms. Keller says.

“Many new moms feel guilty when they do something for themselves,” she says. “But staying active and physically fit makes you a better mom and that is good for the baby.”

Ms. Keller recommends that new mothers start exercising as soon as they possibly can after the birth of their baby. (Most doctors recommend waiting until six weeks postpartum before exercising.)

“Your hormones are more favorably disposed to losing weight in the first six months after the baby is born,” she says.

At the end of the workout, moms and children are by the zoo’s Kids’ Farm again. It’s time for abdominal crunches and stretching.

One-year-old Eden sits on her mommy’s tummy for abs and 2-year-old Dagny finally gets a chance to run around in a nearby field while mommy Wendy Mauro does leg lifts.

Everyone is sweating bullets on this otherwise cool morning.

“We figure, if you’re paying, we may as well make you work hard,” Ms. Marr Book jokes.

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