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Can't get into a fitness groove now that you're pregnant? Then it's time to belly up, say sisters Neena & Veena, creators of several Bellytwins DVDs, including "Bellydance Core Conditioning" and the forthcoming "Belly Baby Prenatal Workout."
"In ancient history, belly dancing was always known as a preparation for childbirth," says Neena, who recently delivered her first child via water birth. The moves require squeezing and releasing the pelvic muscles to create the ripple effect as well as doing figure 8s with the hips.
"Belly dancing keeps a woman flexible, and this is very important during labor," says Sheila Kitzinger, a British anthropologist who has written extensively about giving birth and teaches midwifery. The circling, rocking and tilting motions in belly dance help increase pelvic mobility and help rotate the baby into the right position for birth, she says.
"The movements are natural to a woman's body, pregnant or not," adds Veena (who wasn't expecting, but says she experienced "sympathy" pains with her twin, including cravings).
The flowing arm motions, chest moves, hip rolls and shoulder shimmies of this ancient Middle Eastern dance provide a smooth, super low-impact cardio workout that builds the endurance you'll need during labor, and during life with your new baby. Traditionally done barefoot, the dance focuses on proper posture, which helps place the spine in proper alignment and can help alleviate back and shoulder pain. The moves strengthen the hip, thigh and buttock muscles, relieving the lower-back pressure that's common in pregnancy, and you can do Kegels—contract and relax your pelvic-floor muscles throughout—to strengthen them as well.
Those benefits, notes Eric Sternlicht, Ph.D., assistant professor of kinesiology at Los Angeles-based Occidental College, might be why belly dancing is just what the doctor ordered. "Most medical groups now recommend exercise, even for women who were not active prior to becoming pregnant," he says. "Any activity is beneficial, and if belly dancing appeals to the mother and she will stick with it, all the better."
Neena & Veena maintain that perhaps the best benefit is the way belly dancing makes you feel about yourself: the sense of feminine power, sensuality and enjoyment of your body that this dance form provides. Ready to get your hips in motion?
As you perform the dances, move your entire body gracefully while elongating your spine, lifting your chest and relaxing your shoulders. To avoid arching your back, drop your tailbone down. Keep your arms relaxed, with your elbows and wrists gently bent and fingers soft. Be creative, move in your own way and have fun! Perform each dance for 1-2 minutes, moving slowly and gracefully. You can repeat this workout 1-2 times per day, 4 times per week, with a day off in between to allow your body to rest. Work at your own pace and breathe deeply. Get your doctor's permission before you begin this or any exercise program.