Pregnant women are told that exercise is important, and yet working out for those 9 months is not fully accepted as being normal. It's time to change that mentality.
There is a double standard that exists when it comes to exercise in pregnancy. Women are told that they should be active throughout their pregnancies, if there are no complications or health issues; however, if their choice of exercise goes beyond the traditionally accepted forms of pregnant-friendly activities, such as walking, swimming, or gentle yoga, then they are often criticized for being too active.
I discovered this discrepancy firsthand during my last pregnancy, which just ended three weeks ago. I kept my membership at the gym and worked out two to three times per week, up until two days before giving birth. Although my husband and gym friends were highly supportive, I met plenty of opposition from friends, family, even health care providers. I also received nasty emails from online readers who disliked my TreeHugger post on why it’s important to stay active during pregnancy.
But I kept on going, maintaining the same workout schedule that I’ve had for the past two years. It would have been more of a shock to my body to stop exercising than simply to continue.
During those 40 weeks, I scaled exercises as needed, but I also broke personal records almost weekly as I lifted heavier weights. I even maxed my deadlift at eight months and my back squat a week before delivery. I continued to run, row, skip rope, and do pull-ups, all the while reassuring people that I would stop if I felt uncomfortable or less than stable with my lifts, or if I thought my baby were somehow in danger.
Since it was my third child, I was interested to see how an active pregnancy would compare to my other two, before I’d really gotten in shape. During those pregnancies, I rode my bike occasionally and mostly walked, with very little change in my heart rate and no weight lifting at all.
The difference astounded me. This time, I felt great. Gone was the lethargy of the other pregnancies. I had no swelling or bloating, no nausea except for the first trimester. Best of all, I felt strong and able to chase after my other kids; I hauled groceries, stacked firewood, shoveled snow, even moved furniture.
I gave birth at home, assisted by midwives. The labor lasted four hours and the natural delivery, despite being complicated by the baby’s position, went well. I gave birth to a healthy 9 lb. 6 oz. baby. The pain was manageable, my abdominal muscles felt powerful, and, best of all, I was confident that my body had maintained its conditioning in preparation for this very event.
Most surprisingly was the postpartum recovery. With my other two, I remember feeling horrible for days. Everything ached. Every movement hurt, and I didn’t feel steady enough to carry the newborn around the house. This time, however, there was no entire-body ache, likely because I was accustomed to having an intense workout on a regular basis. I felt almost normal the next day.
I attribute all of this to staying active throughout pregnancy. I believe strongly that the majority of women – those with no complications – have nothing to fear from relatively intense exercise while pregnant.
A new study from the University of Texas and Harokopio University shows that maternal exercise is indeed beneficial. Researchers looked at the connection between mothers’ gestational weight gain and their children’s weight by age eight. They found that “moderate exercise during pregnancy lowered the risk of the offspring to develop overweight/obesity in childhood and preadolescence, even after adjusting for various maternal and offspring characteristics.”
Interestingly, the study’s discussion addressed the very issue I encountered – that exercise is not yet sufficiently well accepted as being beneficial for pregnant women. Health scientists are reluctant to encourage exercise during pregnancy, despite the well-recognized benefits. They worry about the potential decrease in oxygen passing to the fetus during exercise, despite evidence that exercise can reduce risk factors of pregnancy-related conditions, such as gestational diabetes.
I don’t think women should be so fearful. Instead, I wish that health care providers, families, and society in general would be more supportive to women who choose to pursue physical activity throughout pregnancy, rather than forcing them to defend their choice. These women, rather than “endangering their baby,” as I heard several times, could very well be doing their babies a favor by setting them on a healthier life path than those women who do not exercise at all.