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The Pregnant Exerciser
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By Nawaz Modi Singhania  

Over & over again, we've seen women look just as good, if not better, after childbirth. If you put in the effort, it can be done.

By working out diligently & safely, improving eating habits, increasing rest, eliminating bad habits, & receiving adequate prenatal care, a pregnant exerciser can become healthier than ever before.

Women are often unaware that pregnancy, labour & delivery are like training for & participating in a major athletic event. All organs & systems are affected. They are stressed enormously in preparation, formation & growth of the baby.

Did you know that the uterus enlarges 10- 15 times within the span of 36 weeks? No other muscle or organ has such a fantastic ability to grow in such a short space of time.

Achievable Goals During Pregnancy

Cardiovascular fitness can be maintained & even improved during pregnancy. One will enjoy greater levels of energy to get through the day.

Women can increase their muscular strength during pregnancy, thereby automatically reducing her risk of injury.

A pregnant woman also improve her posture substantially by developing her musculoskeletal system. Strengthening the abdominals counteracts lordosis, which is a common postural deviation during pregnancy. Working on upper body strength can prevent rounded shoulders. Improvement of posture improves a pregnant woman's stability.

Flexibility is an attainable & a desirable goal during pregnancy.

Psychological well-being
Improved self-image & body image are easily met when pregnant women exercise in a supportive environment. It's important to avoid excessive weight gain, but to learn to cope comfortably with the healthy increase in body weight. This will prevent the pregnant woman from feeling alienated from her body. Exercise can also reduce anxiety & stress.

Exercise & the birth process
There is no scientific evidence available to corroborate the view that exercise will ease labour by making it easier or shorter, or that the risk of complications will be diminished.

However, exercise contributes towards improved endurance or stamina, which is a great asset during labour. One is better able to use the correct muscles, apply the right amount of pressure, & to effectively relax those muscles which are not directly involved in the different stages of labour.

Exercise also increases ones awareness of correct breathing, & its impact on muscular efficiency. The ability to breathe with control is of great aid to a woman's management of her own labour.

Finally, exercise helps you regain your original shape & size much faster post-pregnancy, than if you didn't exercise at all.

Take Into Careful Consideration:

Although pregnant women are not weak, fragile creatures, many issues need to be understood & considered, & alterations made accordingly.

Physical work capacity will decrease during the first trimester, increase during the second (although not to pre-pregnancy levels), & then reduce again in the third.

As hormone production (estrogen & progesterone) increases, one may feel nauseous, irritable, experience dramatic mood-swings or feel just plain God-awful.

At the end of the first trimester, even when at rest, the heart has to work 40% harder than usual. The heart rate increases by 10 beat per minute. That's a stupendous 14,000 extra times each day!

As a result of all of this, your blood pressure may become higher, & your body temperature will increase.

As the baby grows bigger & becomes heavier, your centre of gravity will constantly be changing. One may find that their balance is off, & that they feel awkward & clumsy. As a result of your internal organs shifting or being pushed out of the way, you may find the pressure on your bladder mounting, & you might need to get to the bathroom more often than before.

The body releases a hormone called relaxin during pregnancy, which results in ligament, muscle, tendon & joint laxity. This is essential in order to accommodate the growing feotus. So you may find that you're more flexible than ever before.

Breasts may become very tender as a result of all the new vessels & ducts that are developing. The thyroid may become slightly larger as a result of the enlargement of the pituitary gland. The placenta also produces a hormone that causes the thyroid to enlarge. There'll be an increase in white blood cell production blood cell production to help you fight infections.

These changes warrant attention as they can make you more vulnerable to injury. Prenatal exercise must be designed to meet these special needs. As long as one begins slowly and progresses at a comfortable pace, risk of injury is minimal.

Do's & Don'ts

The following guidelines aim at making your exercise sessions more comfortable & effective, while focussing on safety.

  • See your gynaec
    Always consult with your doctor or gynaec before you embark on an exercise programme. Make sure you get his/her recommendations or restrictions down as far as exercise goes. Each one of us is individual & needs individual advice & attention.

  • Always warm-up & cool-down
    A minimum of 5- 7 minutes for both a warm-up & a cool-down are essential. Include limbering & whole body moves along with stretches. The warm-up will help you stretch out, & get the heart, lungs & muscles ready for exercise. It's also a very important tool in injury prevention. The cool-down helps you stretch & relax the muscles you have worked so hard, while eliminating the waste products of exercise from your system. It will return your circulation & metabolism to resting levels.

  • Don't put up with pain or discomfort
    Pain & discomfort are signs to stop. Listen to your body.
    Remember that a change in the baby's position can also make an exercise comfortable at one point in time & uncomfortable at another. In pregnancy, the old saying, "no pain, no gain" is nonsense & can be outright dangerous.

  • Breathe
    Never hold your breath. Doing this can raise your blood pressure, cause headaches & dizziness, & put too much pressure on the abdomen. Breathe freely, deeply & regularly.

  • Heart Rate
    Low to moderate intensities are preferred during pregnancy. Never go high on intensity. This can lead to serious damage. Your heart rate range is best worked out & monitored in conjunction with your physical trainer.

  • Ideally, let a well trained, qualified fitness Instructor tailor an effective, low impact workout for you. Among other things, they will eliminate all cross body moves, as the abdomen interferes, & all forward bending moves as they may cause dizziness. Hyperflexion of the joints, such as deep knee plies will also be avoided, as the increased joint laxity we discussed earlier can lead to joint damage, if one is not careful.

Finally, remember to do what you comfortably can. Don't try & compete with your former self. Do as much or as little as your body comfortably allows.

For Starters

Here are a few simple exercises you can begin with.

For the inner thighs.
Sit leaning up against a wall, with your knees bent & the soles of your feet together. Cross your arms, & place your hands on the inner side of your thighs above the knee joints. Take a deep breath in, & while breathing out, try to press your knees together as you gently resist with your hands. Start by doing 2 sets of 8.

For the outer thighs & hips.
While lying down on your side as demonstrated, lift the outer leg up as you breathe out, & lower it, without allowing it to touch the lower leg, as you breathe in. Begin by doing 2 sets of 8 on each leg.

For the abdominals.
Sitting with your knees apart & bent, arms extended out parallel to the floor, slowly roll back halfway from sitting up & lying down. Keep the chin close to your chest & your spine rounded. Slowly return back to the upright position. Start by doing this 6-8 times, & then gradually build it up to 15.

For the arms, chest, upper back & shoulders. This can be described as a mini push-up. Standing about two feet away from the wall with your feet shoulder width apart, place your hands on the wall at shoulder level. Bend your arms to the extent where the upper body is almost touching the wall. Don't let the back arch, your butt jut out, or the pelvic sag forward. Breathe out & push yourself slowly away from the wall without letting your elbows lock. Start with five repetitions, & gradually build it up to 15.

Before you embark on any fitness regimen, remember to fully understand the implications of pregnancy, the changes one undergoes physically, psychologically & emotionally, & the possible effects of exercise on the same. You should be aware of the common discomforts of pregnancy, & warning signals to stop exercising. Discuss them freely with your medical practitioner & trainer. Get information from your trainer about appropriate clothing & footwear. Your trainer will make significant changes in the mode, duration, frequency & intensity of the workout.

Nothing should be done without the knowledge, consent, & written medical clearance of your gynaec.

Remember, healthy mothers produce healthy babies! All the best!