UPPER EAST SIDE — Fitness instructor Laura Kovall stands with her knees deeply bent and her toes pointed out in second position.
“You can do it. Just a couple more seconds,” Kovall called out to the nine women gathered around her, holding squat pliés.
When Kovall gives them the OK to release, everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
“Everyone here has been through labor right?” she asked. “So that was nothing.”
This is Fit4Mom, a cardio and strength-training program designed for mothers. The exercises target areas that can be impacted by pregnancy, like core strength and balance, and women are encouraged to bring their little ones to class, where strollers often double as fitness equipment.
Kovall, who owns the Manhattan franchise of Fit4Mom, started offering classes on the Upper West Side in 2013 and recently expanded the program to the Upper East Side.
“As a mom, it’s tough because you’re constantly choosing between spending time with your child and doing other things, whether that’s going to dinner with a friend or exercising,” Kovall said. “This gives women a chance to do both at once.”
Kovall became interested in the intersection of fitness and motherhood while pregnant with her daughter Sophia, who is now 2. A marathon runner and fitness enthusiast, she was frustrated by the lack of good exercise options for women with young children.
“After I had my daughter, the issue was, what do I do with my child when I’m working out?” she said. “There are many mommy-and-me yoga classes, but no one was offering what I am — a more intense workout that you can bring your child to.”
Each Fit4Mom class runs 60 minutes and combines cardio, strength and toning exercises. Groups meet in local parks during the warmer months.
Class begins with a warm-up while women introduce themselves and their children. After a few laps of jogging with a stroller, Kovall may lead participants in a series of walking lunges using the stroller for resistance, followed by an ab workout performed with the help of a park bench.
Kovall’s job is much like that of any fitness instructor. She demonstrates moves, corrects practitioners' form and encourages her students.
But there are some differences.
At a recent class, Kovall was walking along a line of women in plank poses when one of the babies started to fuss.
“Come on, mamas. Don’t forget to keep your hips down,” she reminded them, adding to the mom with the crying baby, “Do you want me to get his paci?”
When the pacifier didn't work, Kovall took the baby and his stroller for a lap so his mother could stay focused on her workout.
Later on, she led the group in a round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” to keep the little ones entertained while the mothers used resistance bands to complete a round of tricep rows.
“Sometimes my job is also to be a babysitter,” Kovall said.
Fit4Mom workouts are kid-friendly, but they aren't child’s play.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect at the first workout, but I was out of breath and sweating and sore the next day,” said Lisa Jackson. “I was shocked in a good way.”
Jackson, 36, was an avid exerciser before she gave birth to her son three months ago, taking yoga and pilates classes, going to boot camps and working out with a personal trainer. She said she plans to keep attending Fit4Mom for its health benefits and sense of community.
“It can be very isolating to be a stay-at-home-mom, especially with your first baby,” Jackson said. “It’s nice to talk to other moms and find out what they have been experiencing.”
Kovall said part of her goal is to create a judgment-free community for her clients, where they don’t have to worry if their child starts to cry during the cardio sequence. Her motto during class is “No apologies.”
“I think it’s so important for moms to feel like they have the opportunity to take care of themselves,” Kovall said. “The number one complaint I hear is that women don’t have time. My goal is to empower them and show them that this is realistic and attainable. It’s just a matter of how.”
Fit4Mom’s Upper East Side group meets on Tuesday and Thursday mornings in Carl Schurz Park at 86th Street and the East River. Kovall also plans to offer a Stroller Barre class later this spring. Check Mama Fit by Laura for more details.