Can I just say how much I heart the Olympics? I think it's so cool to be waiting in line in the hospital cafeteria and overhear coworkers discussing the results of the women's 200-meter IM. Or cluster around a waiting-room TV with patients and staff alike to watch the U.S. men's volleyball team take on Italy. There are few if any other events that create such an engrossing shared cultural experience. How neat is that?
And, in case that wasn't enough, the Rio games just happened to score a big win for pregnant women everywhere, when it was revealed that Kerri Walsh-Jennings the insanely talented three-time Olympic gold medalist in beach volleyball was (knowingly) five weeks pregnant when she competed and won in the 2012 London Olympics. Do you know what I was doing at five weeks? Probably binge watching episodes of the Gilmore Girls with a can of Pringles on my lap.
You see, there is this bizarro idea that first-time moms get into their heads: once you're pregnant, normal exercise is a no-no. The Bootcamp classes I was attending at the Caldwell Y? Far too strenuous. My weekly yoga sessions? Too many risky positions that could put stress on the baby or (according to the latest blog I read) cut off blood flow to my heart, simultaneously killing us both. Add to this a crippling fear of miscarriage and the nausea and fatigue most women feel in the first few months and well, you've got a recipe for fitness disaster.
It should come as no surprise that childbirth takes an incredible physical toll on your body. In fact, a recent University of Michigan study found that childbirth is more exhaustive both physically and mentally and produces more muscle injuries than running a marathon. So, why don't we train for childbirth like we would train for any other athletic endeavor?
That's the philosophy of this Monday-night fitness class I've been attending, designed specifically to prepare pregnant women for the rigors of childbirth. But if you're picturing a bunch of pregnant ladies doing water aerobics, let me stop you right there. We're talking about HIIT (high-intensity interval training) circuits and serious plyometric workouts, guided by instructors who help us modify the program to address our individual needs and the safety of our growing children. We probably take more breaks than your average fitness class, but we still work up a serious sweat.
Last Monday, as we huffed and puffed our way through a cardio warmup, the instructor asked us to share what we do for exercise outside of class. I was relieved to find that all the first-time moms had basically the same answer nothing. We all admitted that we abruptly stopped exercising the moment we found out we were pregnant. The other thing we all agreed on? That we were embarrassed by how weak we'd become starting to exercise regularly again opened our eyes to how much our muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness suffered in that sedentary first trimester.
As I've watched Kerri Walsh-Jennings dominate the volleyball court yet again in Rio, it's really dawned on me how not just silly but harmful it was to stop my favorite physical activities because I was pregnant. In 21 weeks, I'm going to need all the muscles I can get. I'm going to need some serious cardiovascular endurance. And you know what? It feels so good to be back in the gym again. It's reminding me how tough I really am and just how much my body is capable of. Not to get all inspirational on you (not my style), but I find it genuinely empowering.
It goes without saying that you should talk to your healthcare provider about the best methods of exercise for your particular needs, especially if you're in a high-risk pregnancy category. When I told my nurse practitioner, Karen Carloy, about this week's blog topic, she had some great advice to share.
“Yes, we do want pregnant women exercising, not resting and taking it easy!'” she said over email. She suggested swimming as a terrific low-impact exercise throughout your entire pregnancy, as well as strength training with weights under 25 lbs. “Although we recognize that mothers of toddlers and farm families probably do more than that anyway.”
Karen also stressed the importance of core exercise including walking a few miles a day with good posture and form to strengthen the muscles that support the lower back and lower abdomen during pregnancy.
And, most importantly, you should listen to your body. Even if you're just enjoying a brisk walk around your neighborhood, don't continue if you're in pain, out of breath or if something just doesn't feel right.