There are a lot of mixed messages around exercise and fitness during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Firstly, always consult your doctor or healthcare professional before starting any new exercise regime when you are pregnant or postpartum. Once you have the go-ahead from your dotor, we hope this guide to pregnancy and postpartum exercise is helpful.
This is an important practice at any time, but especially so during pregnancy. Ché Dyer, a yoga teacher and graphic designer in London, is currently in her third trimester. “I think pregnancy is a great time for us to really tune into the body and its needs. There were definitely days In the first trimester where I felt completely exhausted and nauseous, so I opted for a nap on the couch instead of a workout!”
In each trimester, your tolerance and need for movement will be different. It may even change from day to day; pregnancy demands a lot from your body! On the days you feel good and full of energy, cash in on it and do a yoga class or a workout. And when you feel like you’d rather nap, take the nap.
A lot of pregnant mamas think they need to work on their abdominal muscles in pregnancy, in order to succeed in labour. However, Ash Iovino, a Cape Town-based fitness trainer and mom of three says, “be mindful of overdoing it on core exercises so as to avoid causing diastasic rectus (abdominal separation).”
“Try working the leg muscles — think squats or static lunges. The legs contain some of the biggest muscles in the body and help with oxygen uptake in the system. Muscles work most optimally in the presence of oxygen, and the uterus, the organ responsible for contractions in labour, is a muscle just like any other! So having a system with an optimised oxygen uptake helps support the uterus in it’s role in birth,” notes Ché.
There’s a lot going on when you’re pregnant. You grow a whole new organ — the placenta — and have very different hormone levels at different times throughout the 40ish week period. For example, the hormone relaxin is secreted in your first and third trimester. It helps your uterus expand to fit a growing baby, and then helps your cervix open to let that grown baby out into the world. It can also have the effect of loosening a lot of your other joints and muscles, leading to unexpected injuries if you forget to account for it in your workouts.
One way to stay ahead of these changes is to sign up for something like Ash Iovino’s FitMom app. On her new app, you can take on-demand classes tailored to your growing body. She also has a nutrition ebook, and live Zoom classes available, making it an excellent resource before, during and after pregnancy. And since she’s lived through three of those periods, Ash is a wonderful source of support!
This is a simple one. You know the saying ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’? Well, you also can’t grow a baby in an under-fed and under-hydrated body. This isn’t a time to try a calorie deficit or lose weight. If you need to watch your weight, your doctor will tell you. For most women, some weight gain is expected in pregnancy.
“Maintaining or building up some physical strength during pregnancy is a great way to prepare the body for the endurance and marathon of labour,” says Che. It will also help to ensure you have a strong body to nurture and care for yourself and your newborn in the fourth trimester, a time that often gets overlooked to focus on the birth.
Speaking of postpartum, don’t rush back into high intensity exercise until you’re good and ready. You should get the green light from your doctor at your 6 week postpartum check up. But you know your body best. If you still don’t feel strong, then you should take it easy.
“Mothers who rush to “bounce back” into heavy exercising run the risk of overloading their systems which may not be ready for the load. This can feed into problems down the line like exacerbating diastasis recti [separation of abdominal muscles] or placing unnecessary strain on the pelvic floor,” Che emphasises.
Even when it doesn’t feel like a workout, there are many different things you can do to move your body and feel good. Walking is one of the best ways to keep yourself sane and healthy throughout pregnancy, and in the fourth trimester and beyond.
GI Jane, a Durban-based mom, personal fitness and self-love trainer, says that she ended up buying a treadmill while pregnant! “I carried on as normal and only stopped at 8 months because I had SPD [pubis dysfunction]. But I walked and weight trained til then! Did yoga until 6 months then I got annoyed I couldn’t do as much anymore. Mostly, I walked and even got a treadmill so I could do it any time of the day or night and safely. Watched Netflix on my iPad with the aircon on. Glorious!”
Mom, business owner and content creator, Misha Levin, credits walking with helping her get through the difficult newborn days and kickstarting her journey back to fitness postpartum. “One week postpartum [with my first baby] I decided that for my own sanity I needed to get out of the house, get the blood flowing. It was a slow 2 km walk to get my favourite cup of coffee and it felt bloody amazing.”
Exercise has so many benefits for both your body and mind during pregnancy and postpartum. Some of the general rules are to not introduce any new regimes in the first trimester, and to make sure you confirm with your doctor what you can and can’t do according to your particular situation. Then, if you have an already established fitness routine, you can continue with it as long as it makes you feel good.
Gentle movement, like walking or yoga, can also be extremely helpful for relieving the monotony of looking after a baby and help to alleviate postpartum anxiety. But heading back into HIIT workouts too soon can do more harm than good.
We hope this guide to pregnancy and postpartum exercise has been helpful. What do you plan on doing during your pregnancy? What do you think your fourth trimester will look like?