Carrying a newborn around may sound easy, but even an 8- month-old can tip the scales at 20 pounds - not including the carrier, diaper bag or other accessories.
Yeah, yeah, fitness should be its own reward. But on days when that's not enough motivation, remember this: Exercise is as close as you can get to a panacea for common pregnancy complaints.
Keeping fit can help you look and feel great, prepare you for labor and improve fetal development. If you're not sure where to begin, check out our easy, effective workouts.
And the next time you need to convince yourself to get moving, remember the benefits of exercise described here.
1. Rev Those Engines
Next time you say, "I'm too tired to exercise," think again. "People might be surprised at how much better exercise will make them feel and how much energy they feel they have," says Lenita Anthony, an exercise physiologist and Reebok University master trainer. Regular training helps elevate metabolism, regulate core-body temperature more effectively and improve sleep. It also helps pregnant bodies pump the extra blood volume of pregnancy more efficiently. All of this enhances a pregnant woman's overall well-being, says Anthony, who is writing a book for the American Council on Exercise called Pre- and Post-natal Fitness (ACE Books).
2. Improve Circulation
Exercise promotes circulation and stimulates the digestive processes, which help prevent constipation, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, leg cramps and swelling in the ankles.
3. Prevent Gestational Diabetes
Hormones from the placenta create a state of insulin resistance which in some patients can lead to gestational diabetes. This condition can mean larger babies, C-sections and possibly Type II diabetes. By working out and eating sensibly to keep weight gain within a normal range, pregnant women can help prevent gestational diabetes, says Gerald Bernstein, M.D., past president of the American Diabetes Association.
4. Improve Your Mood
Exercise can improve self-esteem, reduce symptoms of depression and lessen mood swings. Among the many explanations (changing brain chemistry, improved sleep, reduced stress and the euphoria of endorphins), one important factor is the feeling of control it brings. "During pregnancy, our bodies do their own thing. They just grow and grow, and we don't have a lot of control," says Michelle F. Mottola, Ph.D., director of the Exercise and Pregnancy Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario. "When we exercise, we're doing something for our bodies and taking back a little control."
5. Enhance Baby's Development
The offspring of exercisers scored significantly higher on tests of both general intelligence and oral language skills, according to studies by James F. Clapp III, M.D., author of Exercising Through Your Pregnancy (Human Kinetics, 1998). In an ongoing study, gains began when children were as young as 5 days old and remained at the five-year checkup.
6. Prevent Back Pain
Pregnant exercisers report fewer pregnancy-related complications, including back and hip pain, says Elizabeth Joy, M.D., clinical associate professor in the department of family and preventive medicine at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Strengthening the muscles that support the back — including the abdominals — can help relieve some of the forward pull that causes lower back pain, says Joy, who is on the board of trustees of the American College of Sports Medicine.
7. Sleep Well
Ninety-seven percent of women fail to sleep through the night by the end of pregnancy, according to a study by Saint Joseph's University and Delaware County Memorial Hospital in Drexel Hill, Pa. "Exercise is extremely beneficial for sleep problems," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, and one of the study's researchers. "The only caution is to not exercise at least three hours before bedtime."
8. Prepare for Childbirth
Some research suggests that maternal fitness results in shorter labor times, fewer medical interventions and less exhaustion during labor, but the jury is still out. Despite the controversy, most experts agree that training for labor is akin to preparing for a marathon — stamina is key. "Being fit is not going to decrease the pain, but it helps women get through 20 hours of labor and helps them bounce back," says exercise expert Mottola.
9. Be Ready to Tote That Baby
Carrying your newborn around may sound easy, but even an 8-month-old can tip the scales at 20 pounds — not including the carrier, diaper bag and other baby accessories. To prepare, moms need to strengthen their legs (to squat to baby level), upper-back and torso muscles (to lift and carry) and arms (to cradle and support that fast-growing babe). "Strength training is extremely helpful in giving women the strength and postural awareness to lift and carry a baby in a way that doesn't cause injury," says physiologist Anthony.
10. Get Your Body Back
A sedentary lifestyle can lead to health problems. Gaining more than the recommended weight during pregnancy — 25 to 35 pounds for women of normal weight — quadruples a mother's likelihood of obesity one year after giving birth, according to a recent study by a Cornell University nutritionist. Besides making it harder to lose the weight later, women who gain excessive amounts of weight during pregnancy tend to have bigger babies and may be at higher risk for C-sections, gestational diabetes and other complications.