Last year, on a pleasant Mumbai morning before the city was taken over by rush-hour traffic, Pallavi Barman was doing a round of full splits, squats, short runs and pull-ups at her neighbourhood park in suburban Mumbai.
This year, during the second lockdown in England, Gemma May, a personal trainer specialising in pre- and post-natal fitness, was leading a muscle toning class on Zoom with two dumbbells, performing deadlifts, bicep curls and shoulder presses.
Both attracted quite a few stunned onlookers as their pregnant bellies stood out. “While working out during my two pregnancies in the last four years I have been subjected to awe, concern, cringes, counsel, encouragement, discouragement, caution and much more,” says Barman, a Mumbai-based marketing executive and lifestyle coach.
In a country that is just about waking up to fitness as an integral part of regular life, such reactions are understandable. Largely due to the lack of awareness and infrastructure in India, explains Barman, caregivers and doctors advise pregnant women to practice caution and not go beyond walking and yoga. But even in the west, other than pre-natal yoga, “exercise still remains a controversial topic around pregnancy as many people still believe that it is not comfortable for the baby and may put it at risk and affect its growth”, says a 34-week-pregnant May, who is still working out five days a week.
What science says
There is now a growing number of women globally who have shown that working out in the pre-natal stage can be beneficial. Drawing on research findings, several global medicine and health bodies support this. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), for instance, advises that “women with uncomplicated pregnancies should be encouraged to engage in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises before, during and after pregnancy” because physical activity in pregnancy has minimal risks and has been shown to benefit most women.
Both Barman and May have been working out for a long time, so even after pregnancy, it was a seamless transition for them to continue with their fitness routines, with some modifications. “My doctor never dissuaded me from training but at every ask she explained to me her apprehensions,” says Barman, who stuck to her fitness routine that included calisthenics, parkour, yoga, cardio and lifting. Her doctor allowed her to run but asked her to ensure dehydration doesn’t cause her to faint because the body draws up a lot of fluids during pregnancy. Barman was even permitted to lift weights, but was asked to be cautious about not hitting the bump and to also pay closer attention to her balance.
However, if one has never exercised before, or hasn't exercised for a while, then it would probably not be beneficial for them to take up exercising during pregnancy, says gynaecologist Uma Vaidyanathan, senior consultant (obstetrics and gynaecology), Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh in New Delhi.
Bodies go through big physiological changes and putting strain through poor exercise choices would not be a good idea, warns May. “Exercise guidelines change throughout the three trimesters to fall in line with the changes in the female body and the growing baby. This is why it is always better to work with trained professionals to make sure that they continue to workout safely and effectively,” adds May.
While working out when pregnant, women not only have to be cautious and listen to their own bodies but also have to pay heed to the health of the foetus. Even the most active women take a break from exercising when all that their bodies need is rest. “When I suffered from morning sickness between weeks eight and sixteen I reduced the amount of exercise I was doing as I felt so exhausted and sick that I couldn't manage what I was used to,” says May.
Even Barman, who has emerged out of both her pregnancies fit enough to do splits and hang on rings, didn’t workout in the first trimester when she was often nauseous and towards the end of term by which time she had become too big.
From the second trimester onward, it is best to reduce working out while lying on the back and not to load the core too much in plank, says May. According to her, the focus should be more on the pelvic floor, strengthening the legs and glutes and upper body so that the body is strong for labour and caring for the baby when it is born.
The other things to bear in mind are to eat something before a session, hydrate well, not workout without a trainer and to not push one’s body unnecessarily, says Vaidyanathan. “Always listen to your body. An eco-system comprising a doctor, trainer and family support are a must. Any woman who has not been active before pregnancy shouldn’t start working out during pregnancy because their bodies are not used to the strain,” she says.
Mother, child benefits
Most forms of pre-natal yoga focus on kegel exercises to take care of pelvic health to facilitate natural birth and to keep the body flexible to avoiding pains and aches. On the other hand, regular workouts are a way of fortifying a woman’s body during a phase when it is extremely sensitive and vulnerable, which is often wrongly interpreted as physiological weakness. “Pregnancy is a time to enjoy because a woman’s body is at its best in terms of hormonal health and completely detoxified. The need of the hour is educating and imparting information the benefits of working out and keeping fit during pregnancy,” says Barman.
Exercise helps expectant mothers maintain muscle tone, reduce gestational diabetes and excessive maternal weight gain, keeps one’s energy levels and mood upbeat in spite of the hormonal surge and improves mental health, says May. Vaidyanathan adds that exercising also helps with post-partum recovery; reduce or banish pregnancy-related pains, acidity, gas, indigestion and constipation, cuts hypertensive disorders, urinary incontinence, and releases endorphins that improve the mood.
May has found that by exercising during pregnancy, she still possesses good energy levels and stamina, feels strong and has had no back pain and little cramping in her legs. These are all symptoms that a lot of women say they experience in their third trimester. “It also gives me a big mental boost which is amazing when your hormones can feel up and down,” she says.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.