When my husband and I were preparing to start our family we discussed a six month pre-pregnancy cleanse that we would BOTH embark on to get ready. This meant that as our first step toward pursuing parenting as a team WE would eliminate alcohol, processed foods, high fructose corn syrup, caffeine, etc. Hubs negotiated his end of the bargain down to 2 weeks of abstinence, but I was vigilant. Folic Acid-check, quality whole food nutrition-check, quit coffee months ahead-a very sad check, exercise program in gear-check… I was ready. Insane, perhaps….but ready.
Turns out most women prefer my hubs approach. A recent study (1) indicated that few women change their health behavior to prepare for pregnancy. Only 2.9% of the women studied who became pregnant followed the folic acid recommendations (shown to prevent Spina Bifida). Only 57% of those studied who became pregnant had performed any strenuous exercise in the 3 months prior to pregnancy. This last statistic should be a concern because it is well known that a fit pregnancy has benefits for both mother and child. However, the standard for making safe fitness choices in pregnancy is based on the type and level of physical activity one participated in prior to pregnancy. 43% of women aren’t even at the track let alone the starting gate when it comes to preparing for a fit pregnancy.
So if you want to cash in on the benefits of a fit pregnancy, including less aches and pains, controlled weight gain, easier delivery, a calmer and more alert baby and easier recovery for you, the time to start is months prior. You don’t have to be a nut-job like me to reap the rewards, but some simple strategies can help you prepare.
- Begin an exercise program at least three months before you begin trying to get pregnant. Why three? In the first two-months you will begin to see and experience the benefits of an exercise program-improved endurance, muscle tone and strength. An additional month will solidify an exercise habit. Critical to any fitness regimen is making it a regular commitment in your weekly schedule. Be aware that 2x/week is the minimum recommendation for physical exercise. This is both, good news for the guilt ridden, those who have difficulty getting motivated and a great early goal.
- Find an aerobic exercise that you like and you can continue until the finish line. As you consider your choices, keep in mind your potential girth, reduced balance, need to protect the fetus from impact and reduced tolerance for impact as the pregnancy progresses. Think low-impact, low potential for falls, and think long-term. Some cardio activities that fit the bill include walking, swimming, low-impact or water aerobics classes, elliptical, stationary bike (less potential for falls), and hiking.
- Get comfortable with strength training. The benefits of targeted muscular work are numerous. Building the strength and endurance of your muscles will help your body adapt to pregnancy changes, maintain your posture and promote stability. This can be achieved through weight training or through activities that use body weight as resistance, such as Yoga or mat Pilates. Focus your strength training on postural muscles-upper back, gluts, low back, and abdominals (see #5).
- Learn how to use your pelvic floor. This is when women start to tune out, but stay with me. Knowing where this group of muscles is, before a baby sits on top of them for nine months and your lady parts stretch to deliver said baby, is critical. Any muscle that is well-trained before an injury will recover much more quickly. A recovered and strong pelvic floor will help prevent incontinence, support your hips and low back, enhance your Core activation and get your sex life back on track. But trust me on this, if you don’t know how to make them work or even how to find your pelvic floor muscles before pregnancy and delivery, trying to locate them after can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack. ( See Kegel 2.0 for some helpful hints).
- Stop doing crunches. Find some new abdominal activities that you can do throughout the pregnancy and beyond, such as planks, side planks, push-ups, and activities on all-fours. Crunches can put excessive pressure on the pelvic floor, are very hard on low backs and can set you up for a diastasis during your pregnancy. A diastasis is a very common, non-painful separation of the abdominals that allows the abdomen to accommodate the growth of the baby. Doing crunches of any kind while pregnant will worsen this separation and set you up for abdominal dysfunction after delivery. An unresolved diastasis will set you up for that jelly belly that is most feared by women.
My husband never did give up anything in preparation for trying to get pregnant. The joke’s kind of on him as he gained an additional 15 lbs. of sympathy weight during the pregnancy. Always been glad I carried the kids, and they ended up with only one head, each.
In the end, exercising before and during pregnancy isn’t about pulling a Heidi Klum and shedding all your baby weight six weeks after birth. No, this is more important. This is about girding yourself against the changes of pregnancy and birth, and setting yourself up for a better recovery. This is about making sure you’re not just fit enough to make it through the next nine months, it’s about making sure you’re fit enough to make it through the next 90 years.
- Inskip et al. Women’s compliance with nutrition and lifestyle recommendations before pregnancy: general population cohort study. BMJ, 2009; 338 (feb12 2): b481 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b481