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Baby Steps

Coo, swaddle, hold and sway moms and their little ones through a postnatal program.

Christine, a group exercise instructor with a toddler, just found out she is pregnant with her second child. Although this is exciting news, Christine worries about the challenge of losing weight once the baby is born. Also, after her first child, Christine was limited to substitute teaching when her husband was home (after work and on some weekends). At the facility where she teaches, like at many other gyms, the baby-sitting department does not accept children younger than 6 months. Hiring a baby sitter is not an option, as Christine’s per-class rate of $20 barely covers the cost.

The postnatal period can be a frustrating time for instructors like Christine, who are anxious to lose weight and get back to teaching classes. Her frustration is shared by many postpartum moms searching for opportunities to get back in shape while dealing with new childcare issues. A few carefully planned postpartum classes featuring Christine (and other highly motivated fitness professionals like her) can be a welcome addition to the group exercise schedule. In fact, an ongoing postpartum program can be a valuable point of difference in today’s competitive health club sales market, especially if the program is just one component of a bigger list of services for new moms.

A postpartum class that includes babies eliminates the stress of finding a sitter—for both the participants and the instructor. It is also a nice alternative for club members whose babies are still too young to be allowed in the club’s baby-sitting area. From a marketing perspective, the class is a great way to introduce new moms to the benefits of health club membership and the importance of keeping that membership active. If the program is solid, it will bring in even more moms. New moms are a great source of marketing because they spread the news about helpful programs to other new moms.

There are four important considerations for developing a postnatal exercise program that “includes baby.” Program directors must develop a winning format, find the best instructor to teach the class, secure the best time on the group exercise schedule and educate the staff about the upcoming program and how to sell it.

Program Basics

One format that easily includes baby is generically referred to as a “mommy and me”-style postnatal class. This format is usually a strength class in which each new mom uses her baby’s weight as resistance—she holds her baby instead of dumbbells or a weighted bar. Over time, the baby’s increased body weight adds to the progressive-overload effect and keeps the workout challenging. The class can safely accommodate babies 6 weeks through crawling. Once babies are mobile, moms have a tough time focusing on the workout because they are repeatedly chasing after their active offspring.

Although participants certainly burn calories during this type of workout, it’s important not to promote it as a cardiovascular class. Encourage participants to get their cardiovascular workouts outside of class with stroller rides, walks, runs or other activities. Safety is one reason for this. In a “mommy and me” class, there is a lot of stuff that participants could trip over during choreographed movements designed to raise heart rates. Each participant has her own equipment, which might include a step, a pair of handheld weights and some resistance tubing. In addition, the baby has a station right next to mom with a car seat, blanket, bouncy seat or all three (it is not uncommon for half of the babies to be sleeping or playing on the floor while the other half are being held). So each attendee needs twice as much space as she would in a traditional body-shaping class, and moving around the room could be hazardous. It can also be very dangerous to move at a certain speed or make directional changes with an 18-pound baby. Staying in one spot and performing controlled movements is safer and more effective.

Providing a stress-free environment should be a main goal. The instructor will build opportunities for mother-and-child interaction into the workout itself, but make sure moms also have the option of holding a fussy baby or lifting weights while a contented child plays nearby. Because new babies often fall asleep on the ride over to the club, sometimes participants are well into the class before their babies wake up and are ready to be held. The class should allow for options and contingencies. This will help make everyone more comfortable.

Insightful Instruction

Your postpartum class is only as good as your instructor. Invest time and energy in finding a good, qualified teacher who can commit to the vision.

Think Ahead. Allow a 3-month lead time to develop a postnatal program. This will give you enough time to identify an experienced instructor who is ready to deliver or is still on maternity leave. Professionals who meet this description are often highly motivated for an opportunity like this. If a new mom is not available to teach, choose an instructor who previously taught the class. If neither option is available, seek out a personal fitness trainer with some postpartum exercise training. If the instructor you hire has no baby of her own, have her use a doll to demonstrate moves.

Certification Counts. For this class, as for any legitimate group exercise session, the instructor should be certified by a reputable organization. Because the class can really be considered semiprivate personal training, it’s good if the instructor is also certified as a personal fitness trainer. Most major certifications include only a small reference to the needs of postpartum women. Therefore, additional postnatal training courses are also recommended.

Stay in Scope of Practice. Just as group exercise instructors are not nutritionists and should not offer nutrition counseling, postnatal instructors should confine their instruction to exercise. However, an instructor might come to class armed with consumer articles about babies, motherhood, etc. If the instructor is not a new mom, she should be well versed on the many stages of babyhood up to 1 year. A leader who is in tune with the stages the participants are encountering can be a comforting presence to anxious new moms.

Strategic Scheduling and Setup

The postnatal class isn’t the only class on the schedule, and you have many other members to think about besides new moms. Consider the big picture when the time comes to introduce your postpartum program.

Good Timing. Once you have identified an instructor, pick a time on the schedule to offer the class 2 or 3 days per week. Most facilities have a little downtime just after prime-time morning classes and just before the lunch crowd (around 10:30 am or 11:00 am). This slot works well for moms who are still adapting to their new lives and/or have other children who go to school in the morning but come home at midday. Class participants sometimes linger as they pack up their equipment and tend to their babies. Therefore, be sure to allow a little time between the postnatal class and the next scheduled class.

Conducive Environment. Once you’ve set a date for the class to start, create a baby-friendly space. The mothers will bring their own blankets, soft toys and strollers or car seats. In addition, arrange for the instructor to “borrow” a bouncy seat, a baby saucer and other apparatus from the baby-sitting department during class times. This equipment will be greatly appreciated by babies 6 months and older who enjoy being vertical for most of the class. A contented baby increases the chances that mom will get to complete her routine without having to take breaks to soothe an upset child.

Baby Extras. Dedicate a small space in the group exercise room as a storage area for equipment and other minimum supplies. Sanitary baby wipes, for example, are important to have on hand for a variety of burps, spit-ups and other mishaps. Having these types of supplies available is courteous to the postnatal class and other classes that follow.

Mommy and Me Marketing

A postnatal program can be the pride of the club. Some might perceive it as proof of the club’s willingness to accommodate all people and their different stations in life. Often, members without small children enjoy seeing the new moms and their cute little bundles of joy as they wait outside the group exercise room. If the studio is visible, club members might even take a break from their workouts to watch. But getting to that point requires some staff communication.

Use the Grapevine. Every employee (from the baby-sitting attendants to the front-desk receptionist) needs to be educated about the program. Let personal trainers know that these new moms are motivated and are potential clients. Explain pricing options to sales counselors or managers who handle new members so these employees are ready to sign up referrals. The “mommy and me” instructor herself can be one of the most important sales representatives. Encourage this person (who most likely belongs to mothers’ groups) to carry brochures with her so she can build awareness about the program and stimulate attendance.

Spread the Word. Carefully construct a flier or brochure to educate staff and potential participants about all aspects of the program. The brochure should include the following basic information: date and time, information about the format, how the babies will be included in class, information about the instructor’s credentials, a registration form (so the club has basic information about the participants), pricing options and general information about the facility. In addition to creating the brochure (which you should include in every new-member packet and proudly display at the front desk), list the program on the group exercise schedule and the facility’s website. Also highlight it in all your regular marketing material.

Secure Management Buy-In. For the program to be successful, management must embrace the benefits of offering these classes. If your club is in an area with a high concentration of new moms, the classes will produce new memberships. Independent clubs and small chains benefit by positioning themselves as “family oriented.” Since most clubs already have space dedicated to group exercise classes, it makes sense to use this space as an additional profit center. In the long run, those babies are potential new members—even if that seems a long way off!

Key Points For a Postnatal Program

No class is ever the same. This is one place in a postpartum woman’s life where the baby doesn’t disrupt her from completing a task. Mom doesn’t have to worry if baby is sleeping, awake or fussy; the workout will continue, with the pace set by the babies themselves. Here are some things for the instructor to keep in mind as the class gets off the ground.

  • Arrive 15 minutes early to greet new participants. Explain how to set up stations and how to integrate the babies into the class.
  • Take an interest in the moms and their babies. It is imperative to learn names and the babies’ ages.
  • Tell participants to bring teething toys, developmental toys or anything else that will occupy their babies. Encourage each mom to bring a blanket and baby wipes.
  • Have each mom at her own station with her baby and equipment (e.g., step, weights, stroller, car seat, other baby apparatus).
  • Vary the format depending on how the babies react.
  • Vary the holding positions to protect moms from wrist, neck and back strain.
  • When babies are not being held, have moms place them in car seats, strollers or stationary walkers or on their backs or tummies on mats or blankets.
  • Take cues from the babies. When you can tell they want to be picked up, grab your baby or doll. This gives moms “permission” to shift attention back to their babies.
  • If the babies have not been picked up halfway through the class, transition to floor exercises near the babies or pick them up.
  • Take an interest in the babies during the workout, noticing little things they do.
  • Offer to give moms a break by holding their babies when they have been doing so for a long time.
  • Always perform floor exercises near or with babies.
  • Encourage moms to stay around after class and socialize.

    Postnatal Programs and Resources

    The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, www.acog.org,

    Bubhub.com, www.bubhub.com

    Collage Video, www.collagevideo.com

    Infantastic, www.postnatalworkout.com

    Lil’ Playmates, www.lilplaymates.com

    Mommy and Me, www.mommyandme.com

    Stroller Strides Inc., www.strollerstrides.com

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