I almost bought the cutest pair of workout leggings the other day until I realized they were maternity workout leggings. I stopped dead in my tracks - this was exciting! A few years ago, when I was pregnant with my son, you couldn't find maternity leggings anywhere. I had to buy XL leggings and pray they didn't irritatingly slide down my stomach with every movement. Not only were these maternity leggings, but they were also an adorable animal print. If there was any sign that the fitness industry was changing, my friends, this was it.
It's about time, and it's not just about the clothes. For so long, fitness programming was for men, and women were only given modified men's programs. The assumption was that the only difference between men and women was their size and strength. There was no consideration of how a woman's body responded to a training program throughout her menstrual cycle or her changing metabolic needs. Forget pregnancy – that wasn't even a consideration nor concern of exercise programs of yesteryear.
Slowly, I saw this change. Women embraced their fitness journey and accepted that pregnancy was part of it. Whether this is because pregnant women athletes are leading the conversation or women don't want to give up their favourite workouts when pregnant, we are beginning to appreciate and better support women during this unique time in their lives. As an industry, we are working with gynaecologists, physiotherapists, personal trainers, and nutritionists to understand better how a woman's body changes and how we can adapt our long-held workout guidance to keep them healthy and strong.
And this shift can't happen soon enough because the pregnancy guidelines of yesteryear are unhelpful. I know because I've used them on myself and other clients. There would be the obligatory message that every pregnancy is different and to consult with your doctor before starting an exercise program (essential to do, of course). But they proceeded to tell women to engage in "moderate" activity and, besides, not jump, ski, engage in impact sports, or get too hot.
General guidelines fall short of helpful because two kinds of women enter pregnancy. One is someone who doesn't, or rarely, engages in physical activity but is enthusiastic about getting in shape and having a healthy pregnancy. The second kind of woman is one that already trains moderately to intensely and is looking to keep up her physicality during pregnancy. These two categories of exercisers may have similar goals, but there will be different guidelines for the appropriate types of exercises and intensities. For example, if you've only ever run as far as to catch a train, beginning a running program during pregnancy isn't the wisest course of action. Can pregnant women run? Absolutely. But is it advised for someone who needs proper technique and running experience? Perhaps not.
The second category of woman, the avid exerciser, will have different skills at her disposal but may also find it challenging to switch mentalities during pregnancy. In today's fitness industry, which has popular fitness forms such as Crossfit and HIIT, our instructors continually tell us that "pain is gain" and to "hustle for the muscle." These motivational tactics also encourage people to shuttle their physical discomfort subconsciously or consciously to the back burner and chalk it up to "normal" when it puts them at an increased risk of injury. When this woman kind of woman gets pregnant, it may be challenging for her to switch her mentality surrounding her workouts to one where she is more aware and in tune with her body and focus on adding appropriate rest and recovery to her program.
Also read: Should you exercise during pregnancy?
Both types of women must listen to their bodies for similar signs but do different things in the gym. Therefore, when traditional pregnancy guidelines gave the infinitely unhelpful advice to "listen to your body," I get anxious. How do women know how to interpret what their bodies are saying, and do they have the skills even to listen? It's the equivalent of sending them to a foreign country and expecting them to translate road signs. Now that fitness professionals are becoming more knowledgeable about the pregnant body to support their pregnant clients, there is now a duty of care to teach them the language their bodies are speaking to adjust their activities according to their needs.
Women deserve more knowledge about their bodies during pregnancy, so they can feel at peace with their decisions and be confident in their movements. I have learned to move away from generalized lists of "can do and can't do exercises" and teach my clients how exercise should feel before, during, and after their sessions. It's incredibly satisfying to see the light bulb go on in their heads as they connect with their changing body.
Here are some of my favourite ways to teach women how to tune into their physical symptoms during pregnancy
ACOG (American Council of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-paced exercise per week. But what is moderately paced? Moderation will mean different things to different women, and some days when you're pregnant moderate will feel infinitely more challenging than others. "Moderate" exercise usually means that your heart rate is raised and you breathe faster but you are so not totally out of breath that you cannot have a conversation.
A June 2019 article published on the BBC website, titled Ultimate limit of human endurance found pointed out that pregnant women's bodies operate at the upper limits of human endurance. An easy way to ensure you're not adding too much exercise to your already hard-working body is to plan 45-minute exercise sessions containing an adequate warm-up and a cool-down, leaving 30 minutes for your workout. Also, plan rest days where your body is allowed to recover fully.
Exercise shouldn't be painful. It's wise to be aware if you feel discomfort or pain before, during, and after each exercise. The presence of pain may not mean you have to stop the exercise altogether. Often, pain can be minimised by correcting your posture or by changing your breathing patterns. However, if that doesn't work, you may need to temporarily replace the triggering exercise with one that better suits your body. Girls Gone Strong, an online resource for female-centric training, has some fantastic articles on modifying exercise during pregnancy, considering pain or discomfort. In one article, 5 Types of Exercise to Avoid When Pregnant, they talk about things to avoid, which include the following: pain in the front or back of your pelvis, general lower back or knee pain and leaking urine, among other things.
Having a certified pre & post-natal trainer or following specially designed programs with thoughtful modifications and education on physical symptoms you may experience is crucial during this part of your fitness journey. They can help you tune into your physical symptoms when it doesn't come naturally to you and provide modifications that help you.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach