Until a year ago, Bethany O'Neill had never jogged more than a mile and had no plans to start doing so. It took the birth of her first child last spring to change her mind.
New to the Vienna area and feeling lonely with a newborn, O'Neill booted up her computer one day last summer and scouted for moms' groups online. The first one she discovered was See Mommy Run (www.seemommyrun.com), a fellowship of women who want to become -- or stay -- active after giving birth. Since Andrea Vincent of Manassas launched the group last year, chapters have sprouted in 15 states. The Web site lists nearly 300 running groups with some 2,600 members, many of whom exercise while pushing their children's strollers.
Parents register free online, using their Zip codes to find a jogging group nearby. If parents don't see a team that matches their running pace or schedule, they can start their own.
That's exactly what O'Neill did, using the site to issue an open invitation to neighborhood moms interested in a walk. The first time, only Vincent showed up. But soon the number of participants grew to nearly a dozen, and the women advanced to running. At first, Vincent had to coach O'Neill through side stitches, even at slow paces. Now the 23-year-old O'Neill is training to compete in a 10-mile race.
"It's like you're being selfish because you're taking time for yourself to exercise, but you're not [selfish] because you have your kids with you," said O'Neill as she ran with Vincent and other regulars along the Washington and Old Dominion trail on a recent 80-degree weekday. In front of her, O'Neill pushed year-old daughter Emma in a small purple Baby Jogger stroller.
While new moms have long sought out one another's company, it's a good bet the park bench has been a more common meeting place than the jogging trail. But See Mommy Run members are discovering benefits to the newer format. Besides connecting with other socially starved women facing more demands on less sleep, they're dropping pounds, adding muscle and relieving stress.
"Doing something good for yourself is doing good for the rest of the family," said Melissa Dow of Fairfax Station, her blonde ponytail bouncing as she pushed 20-pound Rachel and 40-pound Amanda in a double jogging stroller just in front of O'Neill. "If you sacrifice too much and don't take care of yourself, it's not good for anyone."
A study last fall in the journal Maternal and Child Health found moms who maintained or increased their physical activity after childbirth enjoyed a greater sense of well-being.
The new moms are also learning that, as the study found, there's nothing like peer pressure to keep you true to your exercise goals. When a member of the group skips a run, she knows the others will probably ask later for a reason. That subtle pressure is enough to compel many tired moms to find the energy to show up.
"Part of what's so important about this is that you've made a commitment [to exercise] to your friends and to yourself," said Nicole Allen, 30, a recent transplant from Chicago. "It helps me stay motivated."
Vincent conceived the group during one of her mid-pregnancy runs, which she kept up until her eighth month. Her background in marketing and her husband's interest in Web site development gave them the skills to create the site. She let friends know about it, and they, too, liked the idea.
"People always say, 'Welcome to motherhood, the biggest club on earth,' " said Vincent, 36, "but after your husband goes back to work, you think, 'I'm completely alone. Where is this giant club?' . . . It can be extremely depressing even though you're so excited about this new baby."
The women in the groups say that their friendships are borne of something deeper than crib stories. Most had careers before bearing children, and they seek balance in their new lives as parents. With childhood obesity climbing, they say, they want to show their kids that a lifetime of fitness is important.
The outings are part group therapy, part happy hour -- albeit with juice boxes and vitamin water instead of cocktails. Every week, the moms share the small thrills and mundanities of parenthood. They trade advice about their children's development and stories about their husbands, while prodding each other to push themselves physically.
"Keep it up!" some egged others on, clapping at a turnaround point as their friends streamed past on a recent run. "Come on, catch up with us!" one challenged a slower group.
Throughout last winter's snows, the parade of strollers kept up its schedule except when it was too icy to maneuver -- and then the moms often visited a local gym that offers babysitting. Even runners who become pregnant again continue to show up.
See Mommy Run is changing more than hip size. Before parenthood, Dow worked with computers. Now, she runs with two moms' groups and is getting certified as a fitness trainer. In her next career, she plans to help families exercise together.
Rebecca Adams reports on health care for Congressional Quarterly.