Fitting in fitness

At the age of 39 (and a half), Jess Helle-Morrissey had never exercised. She didn’t play sports as a kid, had no desire to hit the gym and looked and felt pretty healthy. 

So why start now?

As her 40th birthday loomed, the St. Paul mom of three was going on a lot of walks with her baby, who would sleep only in her carrier. But as the days and weeks went on, something started to change. 

“The more I walked, I noticed it getting easier,” she said. “I was less out of breath; then I started going for walks on my own.” 

It didn’t take long before Helle-Morrissey started to think about whether she should break into a jog, so she started researching how to run. 

She soon found an app called Couch to 5K and a local running group called Moms on the Run. With the next Moms on the Run session starting in just two weeks, and with that milestone birthday getting closer by the day, she set aside her fears and signed up.

Fast forward two years to October 2019, and Helle-Morrissey progressed from never exercising to running the Twin Cities 10 Mile, with countless training runs, strength workouts,
5Ks and 10Ks in between. 

Next up? Her first half marathon in Duluth this June.

“Every time I go for a run, I just feel giddy,” Helle-Morrissey said. “I laugh to myself, because who would have thought I could do this? Anyone who knows me could not be more surprised.”

Jess Helle-Morrissey

The best medicine

When people become parents — and time becomes more stretched than ever — exercise often takes a backseat. Fulfilling every basic need for a tiny human (or two, or more) is a full-time job in itself. Add another job, the challenges of maintaining a home, family obligations and maybe even seeing friends once in a while, and how can you possibly fit in a workout?

But skipping exercise can come with big consequences, particularly for women prone to depression. 

In her research, Dr. Beth Lewis, a professor and director of the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, found that women who exercised more in the first six months after giving birth reported fewer depressive symptoms than those who exercised less.  

“Exercise is always the first to go when you’re overwhelmed with a new baby, but it’s often the thing that the new mother will need the most in keeping herself sane,” Lewis said. 

As little as 20 minutes of exercise can improve mood, lower stress, give you more energy and improve your sleep.  

Jess Helle-Morrissey finishing her first 5K

And what new mom doesn’t need that?

Beyond the postpartum period, research has proven that exercise works as well, if not better than, antidepressants and other mood-related medications. When she’s not running, Helle-Morrissey is a therapist who works exclusively with moms, and is now practicing what she’s always preached to her clients.

“Moms’ mental health is really neglected. There’s this tendency for moms to put themselves last, and put their kids ahead of their own well-being,” she said. “There’s a certain stress level we all live with as moms that exercise gets at like almost nothing else.”

Lewis said new moms should start (or resume) exercising as soon as they get the OK from their doctors postpartum. If you really can’t get out of the house, use naptime for a 20-minute HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout, or break it up into three 10-minute workouts a day.

Even five-minute workouts can deliver surprising results. (See this story’s sidebar for apps and videos you can try at home.)

“The biggest thing is to be flexible and figure out what works for you,” she said. Then, “focus on making it a habit and how it makes you feel when you’re done.”

It takes a village

Whether you’re new to exercise like Helle-Morrissey, or looking for that new, post-baby routine, it’s always easier with friends. When personal trainer and mom Karissa Johnson of Blaine started Moms on the Run over 12 years ago, she’d had three babies in four years and didn’t know when she could fit in a workout. 

She decided to start a class for moms and babies in her local park, which evolved into a 5K training program, and is now a national franchise with 50 locations in nine states.

“It’s so hard in women’s busy schedules to make time for work, family, friends,” Johnson said. With Moms on the Run, “we’re combining that girl time, me time and self-care in our one-hour workout together.”

The program is designed for women who have little to no running experience and don’t know where to start. Before long, those beginners become confident runners and progress to the intermediate training program, designed by 2004 Olympian and Minnesota mom of three Carrie Tollefson.

In the winter, most Moms on the Run locations offer both outdoor running (yes, you read that right) and indoor classes such as boot camps, strength training and yoga. Kids are welcome to come along for any of the classes, whether in a jogging stroller or to lift weights right alongside mom.

FIT4MOM stroller class

For moms who want or need to bring their babies with them, FIT4MOM meets all winter long. At the Southdale and Ridgedale shopping centers, a Stroller Strides class offers a full-body workout that incorporates power walking/running, strength and toning, and is often followed by playtime for the kids and coffee for the moms. 

If you need to fit in a quick but intense kid-free workout before or after work, try FIT4MOM’s Body Back, a 40-minute HIIT class offered in Minnetonka, South Minneapolis and Richfield. 

Not ready to commit to a specific style of workout? Bump Club & Beyond lets you sample a variety of exercise routines with like-minded moms. This year, the group is planning to host one free workout a month at Athleta, Lululemon and other locations throughout the Twin Cities, where fitness instructors will teach a class geared toward moms and moms-to-be. Classes are typically on Saturday mornings and include options such as yoga, Pilates and strength training.

Johnson of Moms on the Run said what keeps women coming back to these groups is the friendships that are formed along the way. 

“Women are uniting behind these common goals and interests. There’s such a strong sense of community that goes beyond running,” she said. “Everyone has this common love for women’s fitness and motivating other women.”

Life Time Kids Yoga

Gyms for the whole family

If you ask Jessica Longtine, kids shouldn’t be your excuse for not going to the gym. In fact, as vice president of Life Time Kids, she wants going to the gym to be so fun for kids that they’re the ones dragging Mom and Dad to the club.

With a monthly membership, Life Time families get up to 2.5 hours of drop-off care per day for ages 3 months to 11 years. There are toddler activities for ages 1–2 and classes such as yoga, rock climbing and Spanish for ages 3 and up. Parents, meanwhile, can work out, hit the spa or relax in the steam room. 

“Our motto is to help kids discover what they’re passionate about,” Longtine said. “You can have ‘me’ time, kids can have their time and you can have family time.”

The YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities is similarly family-friendly, with free childcare, camps, aquatics and sports, family-fun nights and other enrichment activities. 

“Kids who play sports at the Y discover so much more than their athletic abilities,” said Joan Schimml, senior director of communications and marketing. “They build character, develop self-confidence and create healthy relationships.”

YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities

The Y also differentiates itself with its nature-based programs, including its popular camps featuring horseback riding, mountain biking, paddling, fishing and outdoor living skills. 

A newer offering, the Y’s CycleHealth events take place four times a year throughout the Three Rivers Park District, starting with the Kidarod on Feb. 22. Ages 7-17 can compete solo or team up with a parent, sibling or friend in a two-mile winter obstacle-course race through Fish Lake Regional Park in Maple Grove. 

There’s also an Everest-themed hiking event in May, a triathlon and run/swim event in August, and a two-person buddy race in October.

Still not sure if the gym is for you? Forget about the muscle men and spandex-clad women that you think are there. They are, but there are a lot more people who look just like you, too. 

Focus on how you feel after a workout and not about how you look. Because at the end of the day, the only workout you’ll regret is the one you didn’t do. 

Erica Wacker is a St. Paul-based mom of two boys. A mediocre high school athlete, she begrudgingly started running in her 20s, but didn’t fall in love with it until joining Moms on the Run three years ago. She hasn’t stopped running since.