"The Alphabet Song," "Ten Little Monkeys" and "Baa Baa Black Sheep" aren't typical accompaniment for a morning workout, but they're appropriate when your exercise partner is under age 3. They formed the soundtrack recently at the Mall of America as mothers pushing babies in strollers zipped through Nickelodeon Universe, practiced plyometrics at Lego Land and cooled down in front of the Rainforest Cafe -- bringing the mall to life even before its stores opened.

The group belongs to Stroller Strides, a national company that provides a total-body workout for moms with strollers -- in parks when the weather is nice, in malls when it is not. It's one of several parent-child workout programs in the Twin Cities that are popping up in the form of mommy boot camps and even family yoga classes that have moms, dads and kids jumping like frogs and swaying like trees.

Despite the national focus on health and fitness, many moms report having little or no time to exercise or feeling guilty about leaving their child to do so. That's why mom-specific workouts that include children have become so popular. Such "mommy and me" classes tout providing mothers with a way to work out, socialize with other moms and interact with their children using quirky nursery rhymes and silly games amid lunges and squats.

"I've never been committed to working out, and the gym's not my thing," said Natalie Ansari, mother to 2-year-old Ava and 7-month-old Cash. "I need more of a team atmosphere."

The Farmington mom attends Stroller Strides classes with friends from high school. Although she says she felt "a little silly singing the wacky" songs, her kids loved it. Plus, she enjoyed coffee with a few moms after class, then did a little shopping.

"It's perfect for me," she said.

Parent-child exercise programs are hugely popular in coastal states such as California and Florida, where class sizes swell to more than 30 people with waiting lists. Although the Twin Cities branch of Stroller Strides has been slower to grow, franchise owner and instructor Emily Christie reports a surge in her class sizes in the past year -- from a few people to an average of eight and sometimes up to 20.

"In some cases, the only way a mom with a young baby can work out is to walk by herself or do a fitness video at home," Christie said. "This is not a gym membership. It's an opportunity for moms to really find a place and come together in support of each other."

More than a walking group

Christie says many people mistake Stroller Strides for being "a walking group that you have to pay for."

But despite the cheeky nursery rhymes, Christie meant business recently as she led the group around the mall's perimeter, working in vigorous intervals at several body-toning stations.

"Is your heart pumping?" she hollered after leading the group through the first set of lunges and plyometrics. "Now, we're gonna do a whole lotta 'Farmer in the Dell'!"

Liz Reeve, mother to 4-month-old Harper, is using Stroller Strides as part of her training for a marathon in January. But equally important to the new mom is the social aspect of the group.

"I just moved to Edina, so meeting other moms is a high priority," she said. "It's threefold. I'm working out, spending time with my daughter and making new friends."

A recent University of Minnesota study found that parents of young children were not as healthy as their peers without kids, because they do less physical activity and eat less healthful foods than do nonparents. Experts say family-centered physical activity is one solution.

"We've always thought of exercise as a solitary activity -- like going to the gym -- but we have to redefine how we think of physical activity," said Jerica Burge, a University of Minnesota researcher. "Time is the biggest barrier, so parents have to figure out how to work exercise into their schedules with their children."

Family-centered exercise has other benefits, too. Postpartum depression affects 1 in 10 new mothers, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, but proponents believe the socialization and camaraderie of such exercise programs can improve the mental health of new parents.

In fact, mothers who maintain or increase their exercise pre- and post-partum have better maternal well-being than those who had no exercise or a lessened level of activity, according to a study in the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

Other programs coming

Twin Cities parents will have even more workout options with their children this winter.

Starting in January, certified yoga instructor and personal trainer Heather Hampton will be offering Baby Boot Camp, a program similar to Stroller Strides, in the Woodbury area. Although details are still in the works, Hampton said fees will be $3 to $10 per class and it will be offered three to five times a week starting at 9 a.m.

Parent-child yoga classes are another popular option. Blooma, with locations in Edina, St. Paul and Shakopee, offers a family yoga class, but children must be at least 3.

To attend a Stroller Strides class, women must be at least six weeks postpartum and have doctor's permission to exercise. Children of any age can participate as long as they stay in the stroller for the hourlong class. Classes are $12 a class to $55 for a month; the first class is free. The company uses rotating locations in Minneapolis, Bloomington, Eden Prairie and Edina, turning to the Mall of America and Southdale Shopping Center in Edina when the weather is cold or rainy.

During the recent Stroller Strides session at the Mall of America, the moms were encouraged to work at their own pace as Christie demonstrated modifications to make exercises easier or harder.

Some of the women took quick breaks between intervals to console a fussy baby or unwrap a snack for a hungry toddler. Others have even stopped to nurse or change a diaper. Tickles are part of the deal, too, as the moms bound toward their children during a rendition of "Ten Little Monkeys."

Janet Atkinson also believes she's setting a good example for her year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and called Stroller Strides her "perfect workout."

"I can lead by example with her and show her that this is part of a healthy lifestyle," she said.

Aimée Tjader • 612-673-1715