One of my favourite memories of Kelsey Brown, a friend who comes to my gym, is of her doing almost all the exercises I was doing while pregnant. She was in her second trimester and had been cleared for workouts by her doctor. While she remained in the gym for the same amount and did the same exercises, I remember her modifying each of them to suit her needs. Squat depth was reduced, less jumping exercises and more dumbbell workouts than barbells.
“Labor and delivery are like an athletic event. You train for it! If you were a swimmer showing up to a swim meet, you wouldn’t show up on race day and get in the pool for the first time. The muscles needed to help you deliver your baby (and recover from delivery) don’t just show up in the delivery room! It helped me to feel prepared and strong to naturally deliver my babies and helped me recover quickly,” says Brown, who has worked out through all three of her pregnancies.
Also read: Can you exercise when you are pregnant?
Brown did change her workouts to suit her changing body. She followed recommendations from Brianna Battles, a US-based fitness coach specializing in workouts during pregnancy, and took the postpartum fitness course that Battles offers. Her coach at the gym, who trained in prenatal and postpartum fitness, would often scale down her workouts in case everyone else’s workout wasn’t best for my body. “I prefer to work out with the group, but with the right tools felt confident to still show up and do my own thing if it was best for myself and my babies. I also decided to get my Crossfit Level 1 certificate after my first baby, so I could better coach myself in case a coach wasn’t sure what was best,” she adds.
Both cardio and weight training have their place in helping the pregnant mother. The two, however, have different purposes. Cardio will help build your body’s endurance, whereas lifting weights will help build muscle.
“Strength training during pregnancy has various benefits, not only is it known to help keep you fit and manage your weight better, but it will also strengthen your back muscles, help increase your core strength, prepare your body for labour, and significantly improve your mood,” explains Dr Manan Vora, an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine expert.
According to Dr Asha Dalal, Director of Obstetrics & Gynaecology at Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, routine physical activity does no harm in pregnancy as long as the person is comfortable. She recommends moderate-intensity, low-impact exercises and suggests exercising for 30 minutes a day or for shorter intervals during the day. “You can start exercising at any time during pregnancy or continue your workout if you are already exercising. In the second trimester, exercising improves your posture, helps in mood elevation, decreases backache and fatigue, and helps in preventing and controlling Gestational diabetes. Exercises during the third trimester help in strengthening the pelvic muscles used during labour; open up the pelvis helping in a normal delivery, thus reducing Caesarean births,” she points out, adding that resistance training, including lifting weights, is safe in pregnancy as long as your obstetrician allows it and you have no pregnancy-related complications which make it unsafe. “However, don’t start lifting weights in pregnancy if you haven’t done that previously,” she says.
Also read: Why body positivity is important for pregnant women
Cardio, on the other hand, offers different benefits. Pregnancy can be considered a stress test for the cardiovascular system, imposing profound cardiovascular adaptations, including increased blood volume, accompanied by a drop in vascular resistance. It can result in higher stroke volume and heart rate and a fall in systemic blood pressure, declares European Association of preventive Cardiology member, Antwerp-based Dr Isabel Witvrouwen (and others) in their 2020 paper published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology. “Don’t workout during your pregnancy is a very modern-day concept. Our grandmothers had all been active during their pregnancies, often carrying loads, walking up the stairs, sitting in the deep squat position etc. And these are needed because you need the strength to push out the baby,” says Bengaluru-based USATF certified running coach Ankita Gaur. Gaur, 37, has been running for nearly 10 years and ran through her pregnancy. But she did cut down on her workload–both mileage and speed. Where she used to easily do 32kms for her long runs, during the pregnancy, she capped it at 10km. Her shorter 5km runs were interspersed with walk breaks.“Traditional cardio can be safely done till around 20 -24 weeks. Modify your exercises in the third trimester," agrees Dr Dalal.
This does not mean that you should just jump and join a class if you have never been active before. And even for those who have been relatively active, there are certain red flags that can sound the alarm bell. Dr Vora suggests stopping exercises immediately if you ever notice any of the following symptoms, including dizziness, chest pain, headache, vaginal bleeding, decrease in baby’s movement, muscle weakness and sudden shortness of breath.
The other factor that needs to be considered is the nutrition and hydration needs of an expecting mother. While it is very important to eat a healthy and balanced diet, there are some things to specifically keep in mind.“Ensure you adjust your intake of calcium, iron, folate, and protein. Consume whole, nourishing foods, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats like Omega 3, and vitamins and minerals. Also, remember to limit your intake of processed and fast foods. It’s important to drink enough fluid and not be dehydrated during pregnancy. Your pee should be pale and clear, and that’s when you know you’re drinking enough water,” adds Dr Vora.
Exercising regularly doesn’t just help during the run-up to the birth of the child but also after. While Gaur, for example, took her time to get back to jogging, taking, her baseline level of fitness certainly seems to have helped her deal with postpartum complications. “A lot of women face issues post-childbirth, such as splitting of the abdomen, incontinence, and acute lower back pain. Regular activities, especially strengthening the pelvic floor muscles and back muscles, have helped me," she says.