Almost every pregnant woman can look back to her early weeks of pregnancy and recall some type of risky behavior. For some it’s the headache tablet, the dental X-ray or the hair dye that makes them wince. In my case, it was the wine tasting that I attended on the night that I conceived. As it turns out, these slip-ups probably are fine, according to medical experts, although pregnant women do need to be alert to behaviors that could put their babies at risk.
Soon enough you’ll have plenty of balls in the air, maybe more than you ever imagined. And with that babe in your arms, you’ll be having a ball, too! In the meantime, one of the best ways to prepare your body for the stress of pregnancy and the rigors of labor is to strengthen your legs, abdominal muscles and back using an exercise ball (also called a stability ball).
Madeleine Lewis, a 37-year-old fitness instructor in Hawthorne, California, was already working out with a fitness ball when she became pregnant with her second child. Instead of giving up her routine, she kept at it and found the ball was especially useful for keeping her in shape during pregnancy. “I got the chance to teach a six-week course using the ball for Mattel’s pregnant employees,” says Lewis. Fourteen women signed up. “They loved using it. I tried out different moves with them, and they gave me feedback about each one.”
When it comes to prenatal exercise, sometimes mother knows best. That’s certainly the case for “Baywatch” lifeguard Gena Lee Nolin. When the actress’s mom, Patricia Nolin, a Duluth, Minn., yoga instructor, heard news of her 25-year-old daughter’s first pregnancy, her immediate response was, “Great, let me fax you some exercises and help you find a good yoga teacher in L.A.” The teacher they found was Hollywood-based Gurmukh, who has taught yoga to celebrity moms Madonna, Annette Bening and Rosanna Arquette.
Your ever-expanding belly can do more than advertise your pregnancy to the world; it can throw off your normal posture, causing you to arch your back. The frequent result: painful lower-back strain. The simple solution? Exercises that strengthen your back muscles. “Strengthening your back will help you handle some of the back strain that is inevitable during pregnancy,” says Douglas Brooks, M.S., an exercise physiologist in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
Between the hectic pace of work and caring for my year-old daughter, I didn’t really have time to feel pregnant with my second child (morning sickness aside). Then I started taking prenatal yoga classes at the Integral Yoga Institute in Manhattan, where I worked. (I squeezed them in during my lunch hour.) The stretches relaxed some of my aching joints, and the various poses made me feel energized. But most important, the program’s last 10 minutes were devoted to relaxing and visualizing the small life growing inside me.
First, let me say that you--and every pregnant woman--should talk with your doctor about athletic training during pregnancy. That said, I offer the following rules for a trained athlete as long as she is in good health, has no pregnancy complications and had no problems such as miscarriage or preterm labor in a prior pregnancy.
Stick with the training conditions you are used to. If you run on a track, this is not the time to start negotiating hilly streets.
No. Many natural barriers in your body, including the cervix and amniotic sac, protect your baby from external substances such as chlorine in a pool or even soapy bath water. In fact, swimming is one of the most beneficial and comfortable forms of exercise you can do during pregnancy, as the water imparts a weightlessness that many women find soothing. That said, I recommend that you check with your doctor before beginning (or continuing) any exercise program.
Walking is the perfect exercise for almost anyone at any time--especially pregnant women: It provides a cardiovascular workout without jarring or stressing your joints, ligaments, growing belly and breasts. In fact, it's so gentle that even sedentary women can start walking while pregnant. "Walking is fantastic for so many reasons, including the fact that most of us can walk with ease no matter how big we get," says Danielle Symons Downs, Ph.D., assistant professor of kinesiology and director of the exercise psychology laboratory at Pennsylvania State University.
If you're not having any complications, you can and should exercise every day for about 30 minutes, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. You can exercise at a similar intensity to your prepregnancy level as long as you stay well-hydrated and avoid overheating. A good rule of thumb is to not increase intensity or duration beyond what you are used to doing so you don't overexert yourself. Stop immediately if you feel lightheaded or have contractions or bleeding. Using the "talk test" is an easy way to monitor your intensity while exercising.
"Scuba diving is a major no-no because of the oxygen considerations. With other activities, you need to weigh the benefits versus the potential risks," says Renee Jeffreys, M.S., an exercise physiologist in Cincinnati, and personal trainer with Fitness for Women (www.fitnessforwomenonline.com). After 15 weeks, the risks of falling and abdominal trauma become dangerous, so an aggressive game of basketball--where elbows are being thrown--wouldn't be a good idea.
It's better than OK: Swimming and other water-based activities are among the best things a pregnant woman can do for herself. Because you are suspended in water, the activity is easy on your joints and muscles, and you can maintain a fairly high level of intensity without straining, Downs says. Of course, you should feel comfortable in the water; if you're at all hesitant, use a flotation device and stay in the shallow end of the pool. Avoid water that's too hot or cold; a temperature between 80° F and 84° F is ideal.
Since the ligaments attached to your uterus are being stretched from all sides, don't be alarmed if you feel pulls and twinges in your groin, side or lower back while exercising or just going about your daily activities. It's also natural to feel more out of breath than usual--just back off the intensity a bit. But heed these warning signs: lightheadedness, contractions or cramping to the point of pain and bleeding. If you experience any of these, contact your doctor immediately.