Exercise Benefits Expecting and New Moms

You may not want to enter a triathlon while you are pregnant, but many women today are focusing on fitness before, during and after pregnancy. Research shows that exercise benefits mothers-to-be and new moms as long as a woman has consulted her physician and a certified fitness trainer and has been given the green light for her particular fitness program.

In his book, “Exercising Through your Pregnancy,” James E. Clapp, III, M.D., debunks many of the myths surrounding exercising while pregnant. Moderate and modified exercises cannot only be safe, but are beneficial for pregnant women who do not have health problems that prohibit exercise.

Clapp is a professor emeritus of reproductive biology at Case Western Reserve University and a research professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. In the early 1970s he began researching how exercise affects the fetus when he was questioned about the potential adverse effects of mountain climbing while pregnant.

Since then, Clapp’s studies have shown the many benefits of exercise, including better sleep and physical and mental well-being for women whose bodies are changing to accommodate new life.

Benefits of Exercise

Experts say exercising can prepare a woman’s body for childbirth and make it easier to shed pounds postpartum.

“More and more people are recognizing how important it is for a woman to stay active and maintain flexibility and circulation in her legs during pregnancy,” says exercise physiologist Becky Langton of Wake Forest. “There is compelling evidence that exercising at moderate intensity is good for mothers and their babies.”

Langton, who teaches classes for fitness trainers, defines moderate exercise as “challenging but not uncomfortable.” A good aerobic workout maintains activity level for at least 20 minutes without lowering intensity. Langton suggests moderate exercise most days of the week for at least 30 minutes each of those days.

She stresses that every woman should consult her physician before starting a fitness program while pregnant. If you are beginning or continuing an exercise program, be sure to also consult with a certified fitness trainer.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) lists the following benefits of exercising while pregnant:

•Helps reduce backaches, constipation, bloating and swelling
•Helps prevent or treat gestational diabetes
•Increases energy
•Improves mood
•Improves posture
•Promotes muscle tone, strength and endurance
•Helps you sleep better

Appropriate Exercise

Walking, running, swimming and yoga are all exercises that women can continue while pregnant. If one type of exercise doesn’t work well for you, try another, says Beth Mosher-Blount, a certified personal trainer and YMCA “PowerMom’s” instructor. “If you are exercising and become pregnant, most of the time you can continue with exercises you have been doing with slight variations as long as you check with your doctor first,” Mosher-Blount says.

If a woman has been sedentary prior to pregnancy, walking 5-10 minutes a day is a good starting place. Walking in the water also is a good option.

“If you are going from zero activity to exercising, now is not the time to take a spinning class or intense aerobics class,” Langton says. And weight loss should not be on the agenda for pregnant women, she says.

Keeping core muscles strong is key, Mosher-Blount says. “You are going to need those muscles when you go into labor,” she says

Yoga is great for back pain as pregnancy progresses, but be sure to tell the instructor you are pregnant so she can provide appropriate and safe modifications. Pilates is an option as long as you consult a certified fitness trainer and modify exercises so you are not off balance or on your back for extended periods of time. Strength training with weights can be continued throughout pregnancy with some modifications and advice from a fitness trainer.

Exercises to Avoid

Horseback riding, scuba diving, basketball, gymnastics, contact sports and downhill skiing are some exercises in the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s list of activities to avoid during pregnancy because of risks of falls or injury to mother or baby.

Langton also advises against outdoor cycling because of the risk of falls. Any exercise that requires balance at advanced stages of pregnancy, such as Pilates, some strength training exercises and step aerobics, are best avoided.

“I tell women that if they can no longer see their feet, they need to stop the step aerobics,” says exercise physiologist Langton.

Exercises that require long periods of standing still or positions that require women to lie flat on their backs after the first trimester also are not advised by ACOG.

Pregnancy is not the time to take up racquetball or tennis if you have never played before, but if you are an experienced player it may be safe to continue these sports until balance becomes an issue at advanced stages of pregnancy.

ACOG also states that women are advised not to exercise during pregnancy if they have risk factors for preterm labor, vaginal bleeding or premature rupture of the membranes.

The additional weight women carry while pregnant already taxes the body, so be sure not to overdo it. Exercise should not be so challenging it leaves a woman completely sapped of energy. According to the ACOG guidelines for fitness during pregnancy, if a woman can talk normally while exercising, her heart rate is at an acceptable level.

“I always tell people when they are pregnant that this is not the time to be making huge gains in fitness, but a time to maintain fitness,” says Mosher-Blount.

Running a marathon or participating in competitive sports is not advised for the average person. If your fitness level is on par with professional athletes, you are in another league and need to seek advice from physicians and trainers. And as far as mountain-climbing goes, ACOG guidelines state that exercising at altitudes higher than 6,000 feet can increase your risk of altitude sickness. This makes it harder for you to breathe and may cut down on your baby’s supply of oxygen.

Post-Pregnancy Exercise

As you search through the closet looking for something to wear post-pregnancy, your eyes rest for a split second on your “skinny jeans,” but you reach instead for your sweat pants, wondering whether your hips and waistline will ever again return to pre-baby status.

Take heart. For nine months your body has been storing maternal fat to create a healthy new life. In some ways, your body, and your life, may never be the same, but one of the best ways to gather the emotional and physical stamina necessary for mothering is to create a healthy fitness routine for you and your family.

“It really instills those values throughout the family if you have a support network of people who want to stay fit,” says Mary Alison Creech, owner and instructor at Strollerfit of Raleigh/Wake Forest, which offers fitness classes for mothers with children age 6 weeks to 4 years that include a cardiovascular workout with children in strollers, strength-training and floor work to target abdominal muscles.

Moms in the classes benefit from the exercise, but also fill social and emotional needs unique to new mothers, Creech points out. “A lot of these moms used to work and now they have gone from working all the time to being at home, and that’s a different world,” says Creech. “These women are multitasking, and at the Strollerfit classes they can cover four things at once. They can bond with their babies and other moms, their children can interact with each other, and they can meet their physiological needs.”

During the first few weeks postpartum, women can expect to lose some weight-loss from losing fluid gained during pregnancy. From that point on, women who are not breastfeeding should aim to lose about two pounds a week on a fitness and nutrition program.

Postpartum Nutrition

Eating healthfully is a must for any fitness plan, but particularly when you are healing from childbirth and possibly nursing an infant.

According to La Leche League, women who are nursing are advised to wait at least two months postpartum before purposely losing weight, since the body needs this time to establish a good milk supply. La Leche recommends a gradual weight loss of one pound per week, while consuming 1,500-1,800 calories a day. Low carbohydrate diets and liquid diets are not recommended while breastfeeding.

In her book, “Body after Baby,” NutriFit founder and owner Jackie Keller outlines a nutrition and workout program to help new mothers lose weight quickly and safely. Included are exercises and daily menus that take into account the calories needed for breastfeeding. Women who are nursing are advised to eat up to 500 additional calories a day and stay well hydrated.

Other books with practical information on postpartum weight loss and exercise for nursing mothers are “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding,” (the Nutritional Know How” chapter) and “Eat Well, Lose Weight While Breastfeeding,” by Eileen Behan, R.D.

The demands of mothering make it challenging to exercise and create a social support network, but it’s one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your baby. Langton suggests women “give themselves some grace” where their bodies are concerned. It takes some time to get into shape after having a baby. Her advice is to take one day at a time and be in the moment as much as possible.

Warning Signs

Stop exercising and call your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms:

•Vaginal bleeding
•Dizziness or feeling faint
•Increased shortness of breath
•Chest pain
•Headache
•Muscle weakness
•Calf pain or swelling
•Uterine contractions
•Decreased fetal movement
•Fluid leaking from the vagina

Source: the American Academy of Obstetrics and Gynecology

Exercise Tips

•Be careful not to get overheated.
•Drink plenty of water.
•Stay out of the hot sun.
•Don’t wear a hat. It keeps in the heat.
•Warm up before exercising and cool down after.
•Don’t exercise with a fever.