Photo: Alex Pezzolesi

Like many new moms, Leah Esplen faced something of a fitness dilemma: She wanted to exercise – preferably in the water – but few aquatic facilities offered child care. Plus, she didn’t want to miss out on any precious baby-bonding time.

So, Esplen, a longtime aqua fitness instructor with an advanced degree in exercise science, developed her own group exercise class – one that simultaneously gives women a gentle but effective postpartum workout and exposes wee ones to the wonders of water.

Esplen is the founder of MommyMoves, a fitness and education provider of Mom & Baby Aquafit classes throughout the Vancouver metro area of British Columbia.

Esplen admits that concept of baby-as-workout-buddy raises eyebrows. She gave a presentation on the subject at the 2009 Idea World Convention – a huge health and wellness exposition – to mixed reaction. “Some people were like, ‘Oh my goodness! I can’t believe you’re actually holding baby while you’re exercising,’” Esplen said. “And others just loved it.”

But it’s not as though babies are training aids, she said. The little ones are just along for the ride while moms jog backwards with babies in tow floating on their backs, do jumping jacks (one-handed with baby perched on shoulder), dynamic lunges and other maneuvers in the pool. Exercisers can make the class as easy or difficult as they’d like by manipulating the water resistance.

Mom & Baby Aquafit isn’t all cardio and strength training though. Each class concludes with a lesson on water safety.

For years, Esplen taught many of the classes herself, but demand has been so great, she’s been forced for step away from her role as instructor to focus her attention on training others in the nuances of coaching baby-cradling mothers to get fit in the pool.

She recently developed the Mom & Baby Aquafit Certification, which has been approved by the British Columbia Recreation and Parks Association. So far, eight instructors have earned the designation. Esplen is also hard at work developing a PreNatal Aquatic Fitness Certification so that instructors can specialize in conducting classes for moms-to-be. At some point, she’ll create certifications for U.S.-based instructors, she said.

While designed for moms to ease into a exercise regimen, babies benefit from group fitness too. Esplen recommends they join mom in the water when they’re between 5 and 7 months old, right around the time they’ve built up enough core strength to sit up on their own.

“They absolutely love the classes,” Esplen said. “The first day they’re kind of looking around in wonder because it’s huge and noisy.”

By the third time, she said, they’re mimicking mom’s movements.