How to Exercise During Pregnancy - Tips to Exercising Safely - Interview with Dahlas Fletcher

by Dahlas Fletcher from Body Fabulous

You've found out you're pregnant and suddenly people are telling you you should take it easy, don't lift anything heavy, think of your baby. Is any of it true? Or should you continue lifting weights and jogging while you are pregnant? Prenatal and postnatal fitness specialist Dahlas Fletcher shares the key information you need to know.

Myths about Pregnancy and Exercise

Some people will tell you that you should just be sitting on the couch for the whole pregnancy and that is just not true. Another one of the biggest myths is that you shouldn't lift anything heavy during your pregnancy. But if you think about how physical motherhood is, and even back in the old days when we didn't have all these automatic cars that zipped up quickly, our groceries delivered, Motherhood is physical.

Resistance Training is Essential

You're still recovering from the birth and at the same time, you're lifting prams, you're lifting babies, you're lifting toddlers, you're lifting shopping, so you need your strength. That is why it's so important during pregnancy to learn how to lift weight properly, and add some resistance training in. There's nothing wrong with lifting during pregnancy if you do it safely and effectively.

It's also important because you lose a lot of your bone density during pregnancy. Those babies inside you are sucking up all that calcium and that's going into their growth. So it's even more important because resistance training helps build up your bone density. It's actually a great idea to start your resistance training before becoming pregnant. You can continue it before, during and after the pregnancy to maintain your strength. There are so many benefits to resistance training.

You should be able to hold a conversation while exercising

Another one is your heart-rate, which is a big one. ACOG or the Australian College of Obstretics and Gynaecology, have released new data and it's about not getting your heart-rate over a certain beat per minute, it's making sure that when you're exercising that you can hold a conversation. Often the biggest thing when you're exercising is just to listen to your instincts. Those mothers' instincts are something you should listen to from the beginning -they are there and if it doesn't feel right, don't do it. If you're feeling hot, if you're feeling flustered, if you're feeling out of breath – that's the first sign that your body is saying, 'OK take a step back, take it easy'.

Make sure you don't overheat

Another myth is overheating, and again that comes back to making sure you can hold a conversation. It is hard here in Queensland, because when you exercise outside, often it's very hot, so you do need to be conscious that you're taking small sips of water throughout exercise, and if you can find an air-conditioned place, it's going to be a lot more comfortable. So, yes you can overheat, but then again it often happens if you're not in tune to those signs that you have when you're exercising. So shortness of breath, dizziness etc.

Can you lie on your back when you're pregnant?

I guess one more is lying on your back. So in your third trimester there is a vein going from your heart to the baby which 'they say' do not lie on your back for any period of time because that can cut off the circulation to the baby. Once again, if you think about when you're at the doctors you do lie on your back often for an Obstetrician appointment or Midwife appointment. So I wouldn't say, go lying on your back the whole time when you exercise, but some small safe exercises for a short period of time on the back is fine. Also doing it with a certified trainer can make it a lot easier and a lot more comfortable for you and you're going to feel a lot more confident that you're exercising safely and effectively. So lying on your back and doing very safe and effective exercises for a short period of time and again if you start feeling dizzy, nauseous, or whatever, that's your body's first sign to say, 'OK, roll over'. And a lot of women end up sleeping on their backs, so you get a bit paranoid, “Oh my goodness, I'm sleeping on my back!”. If your head is actually raised slightly higher than your heart you're not going to get into those issues either. So they're some of the big ones!

Listen to your Body

Listen to your body because every woman, every bump is different. Every pregnancy is different, every labour is different, and every child is different. Some days are better than others, you might have had a terrible night's sleep, or the bump might be sitting a certain way one day in your tummy and you're just not capable. But, other days you might be full of energy and ready to go for it. So you've really just got to listen to your body to understand what you're capable of and trust yourself; and also give yourself -I like to say – a contract of no comparison. So if you're in an exercise class, or you hear your friends are doing yoga four times a week, don't think- “Oh, I should be doing that”, or “They're training with a trainer three times a week”. It's not about them, it's about you. What you can do and what works for you; and the timing that works for you too. So just get in that zone – I am not going to compare! It is really hard because a lot of comparison happens when you have a big bump in front. How big is yours? Mine's this big. Has it done this? So you've got to sometimes take a few steps back. OK, what's going to be right for me and what will work for me?

Women's bodies all handle pregnancy so differently. It's definitely not something that you can compare with and it's also not the time to be undertaking a whole new training regime. It's better to just see what works for you and some days you might not do any specific training at all and that's OK as well, because your body just might not be up for it.

Starting Exercise when You're Pregnant

If you've never exercised before it can be that mother's instinct kicking in thinking “I have to do something to be healthy for my baby”. And although it isn't the time to be going into something full on and extreme, it is definitely a great time if you want to meet with someone who is qualified to help you put together a gradual plan to take you through pregnancy and beyond and work on specific areas that are important during pregnancy. Also because birth and early motherhood can be incredibly demanding, and if you've been maintaining or improving your fitness you will handle it better.

Preparing for Birth

They say on average most first births are longer than a marathon. So it is going to be the biggest work-out of your life! It's important to prepare for that and it's physical. I personally, my first birth all happened very quickly and I had no time for drugs, even though I was asking for them! Because it went from one extreme to the other, it really taught me how physical it was and how much I had to rely on my body and my strength and my endurance, you know. If you have done training leading up to it, it's just so much easier because you can hold your weight and your position so much better, and maintain your breathing which makes a big difference.

You have how ever many days in hospital and how ever many days at home to recover and then you're pretty much getting up all of a sudden in the middle of the night in hospital from day one, if you have a natural birth and even with a Caesarean you're moving around a lot to try and nurse a baby or hold a baby; and your body is in recovery mode post-birth for at least twelve months. So it's trying to find that medium of 'OK I need that strength to look after this child' and endurance, but at the same time my body's in recovery mode so you really need to engage your body and your muscles and your strength and fitness to just basically get through those challenges of early motherhood.

Dealing with Pregnancy Weight Gain

That also takes us to pregnancy weight. Some women like to weigh themselves quite regularly and there's lots of recommendations out there about how much you should and shouldn't weigh when you're pregnant. One of the reasons why it's important to exercise during pregnancy, is there is a growing body of evidence around pregnancy and obesity, and it doesn't discriminate between demographics.

There is all different demographics who are challenged with pregnancy obesity and that not only affects the mother. It affects the newborn. We are finding that a lot of babies are born already with compromised health conditions because they're not being nourished correctly in utero because of obesity. So that's one of the reasons why you should exercise. If you are concerned about your weight you need to discuss it with a medical practitioner and more often than not the medical practitioners won't weigh you during pregnancy, when you come for appointments, unless you're overweight or underweight; and you can actually request that.

You can say, “Look, I really don't want to be getting on the scale every appointment, can you not weigh me unless I'm overweight or underweight?” A lot of them are fine with that. So, if there are difficulties in your weight they will discuss that with you. You've got to think, as well, when you are pregnant, there's about 13 kilos that's essential weight gain and your baby is going to end up weighing about 3 or 4 kilos. Your breasts are going to increase in size to about 1 kilo, your uterus is larger and that's also going to weigh about a kilo, the placenta is about 0.7 of a kilo, the fluid inside you – and this can vary from day to day- but pretty much the amniotic fluid that you're carrying is at least 1 kilo. Your blood volume increases and that can be up to 2 kilos and your fat stores increase and they're natural fat stores that you need to nourish your baby and they're really important, because if you get sick and you're not eating particularly well through that first trimester, where you're nauseous and probably not eating as much, a lot of women panic that 'my baby's not getting enough nourishment'. They are – from those natural fat stores that increase. So that's 13 kilos of weight that is just essential weight gain for a very healthy pregnancy. So it's really important to keep that in mind that, you know, don't set yourself some goal that, “Oh, I'm only going to put on 15 kilos, or I'm only going to put on 20 kilos”, because once again, you might have a really large baby, you know, that's going to weigh a lot, so just keep in mind that your body is just going to grow naturally to what it needs to nourish your baby.

It's a good idea to stop weighing yourself, and instead monitor on how you're feeling, your energy levels, how you sleep, just that general wellbeing. How your clothes fit, rather than looking at the number of the scale. Because as women, it fluctuates so much, it really becomes a terrible mindset, the mind game you can get into and during pregnancy, you do not need that.

Don't Overdo the Walking During Pregnancy

Most women really don't have the energy to exercise until they're over that 12 week hump. Also, a lot of women first of all won't exercise, because a lot of women think that “I'm pregnant, the only thing I can do is walk”. I'm going to go powerwalking and walk to work, but I'm finding there's a lot of increase in pelvic instability or PRPG pain, pelvic girdle pain, and this is because from eight week's pregnant, your pelvis is starting to widen naturally so the baby can come down through your pelvis and through the birth canal. There's ligaments because of the relaxin, that hormone that increases as you become pregnant, all those ligaments that are around your legs and your lower back, your hip joints; they're becoming very tender and soft.

So, your pelvis doesn't have much support; and when you walk your pelvis is, rubbing side to side, forward and back, forward and back, and that actually causes a lot of inflammation and it can be really debilitating. So it doesn't hurt the baby but it's just so debilitating for the mother; and a lot of women just think, "oh I've got lower back pain – it's just something, part of pregnancy''. But one of the symptoms you might find if you do have it, is that you might get pain on one side of your back and then on another. You might get it on one side of your hip and then another, and you might get it on your pubic bone. If it gets to the point when you're in bed and you're having trouble rolling over; and you're struggling standing on one leg, if you're struggling to walk up steps, that could be a sign of pelvic instability.

I really recommend that if you've got any of those symptoms that you go and see a physio straightaway. So try and avoid too much walking. Not every day. I know that sometimes it's impossible when you've got a dog, when you've got children, I would just do minimal walking a day. So don't go for, like, one hour power walks everyday. There's plenty of other stuff you can do.

Exercises to focus on during Pregnancy

One of the points that's really important to focus on is your legs. So squats, squats and learning to squat in the correct position is really important, because if you have strong legs, they're going to help build up your lower back, and they're going to help support your lower back, because your posture changes when the baby transfers all the weight on the front of you. So this is going to help build up your lower back. You also use your legs in labour a lot, and you use your legs non-stop when you're a mother, bending over, getting down and up, so they're a really important aspect.

Another important area is your core, so learning to work your core correctly. Getting into some specific safe and effective core exercises. That means, don't go off and do crunches, lying on your back, lifting up, doing crunches. You can learn some specific pregnancy brace position and this is going to help learn to stabilise those lower tummy muscles, or your tranverse abdominus, and when we're activating down there we're actually deactivating everything in that lower area and helping to strengthen all the rest that is down there around your pelvic floor. And, once again, a lower strong tummy, or lower strong transverse abdominus, is also going to help protect your back. So it's sort of building up the armour around that area as your pelvis doesn't have that strength.

Using positions such as plank position but using, perhaps a fit ball. So resting a fit ball against the wall. Getting your elbows just down in front of you, your chest up, eyes on the horizon; and just thinking as well, I like to tell my ladies, thinking about your posture at all times. Pretend you've got a little torch on your tailbone and rather than shining that torch behind you, shine it in between your legs. So you're tucking your tailbone under and activating that lower tummy and that pelvic floor. And thinking of that when you're bending over. When you're doing a plank position using a fit ball, during a squat. So all those exercises are actually activating and helping your pelvic floor and lower tummy.

Alignment comes back to that pelvic instability because particularly if you've got a handbag on one shoulder, or you stand resting on one leg at an angle, you've got a toddler on one hip and you're just jutting that hip out, and your hips don't have that support, and the lower back doesn't and it's often where a lot of pregnancy aches and pains come from. Because your body is growing and expanding down there. So, keeping that posture long and strong and weight balanced on both feet. I just had a lady say to me “You kind of imagine you're pretending to be Kate Middleton, and have your legs close together and swivel them around and stand up on both legs, when you're getting out of the car!” Just to keep your posture beautiful and rather than that split movement, with your legs.

Also when you're squatting, you could even put a fit ball in the small of your back against the wall; for extra support – that's going to keep you upright because you never want to let your chest drop and drag you forward. And when you squat down, your butt shouldn't go lower than your knee line. So dropping those legs no lower than a 90 degree angle, like you're pretending to sit down on a seat. As your pregnancy progresses if you need to shorten that range, you do that. It comes back again to listening to what your body is capable of.

One last exercise to incorporate is a lot of arm work and arm strengthening. That can come back to resistance training or safe push-ups, so you can push-up against a wall, arms are wider than your shoulders and you just bring your chest down towards the wall and pushing-up again. You can put a fit ball against the wall, hands are wide just down towards the ball and coming up again. So once again, you're not on the ground. I recommend that if you're going to exercise when you're pregnant, try not to do the get up, get down, get up, as often as that's when, you know, your high blood pressure, low blood pressure can affect you, particularly if you've got low blood pressure, you can get dizzy. Especially during pregnancy.

Yin and Yang - Incorporating Downtime

The Yin and the Yang. Eastern medicine and the Chinese, they focus on the Yin and the Yang; and the Yin is the more feminine, gentle, soft side and the Yang is the more of your go-go-go, strength, power, your masculine side. But often, you know, as women, we're more strength/power so it can reverse, so I like to think of it as Yin is just your downtime. Taking a breath, taking it easy, taking things a bit slower, relaxing and your Yang is sort of, when your adrenaline kicks in, where you're pumped, where you go, when your on switch is on. So, you might like to think of it between a gentle yoga stretch class versus a high intensity interval training – that's more a Yang sort of exercise, Yin is more gentle, slow, stretching; or Yin Yoga as I call it.

Looking after your Pelvic Floor Muscles

So, one other important thing in finding your Yin, is pelvic floor. So, learning – there's again a lot of myths – between what you can and can't do with your pelvic floor. And I believe pelvic floor exercises are essential. Learning how to train your pelvic floor correctly is essential. You see the pelvic floor is a muscle – and a lot of women come to me, who are older women, they had their baby five years ago or so and they thought their pelvic floor was shot and they were never going to get it back. But this is not true, it's a muscle, so it's just learning to re-train that muscle and re-engage it, so your pelvic floor is recoverable at any stage in life. Even if you get to eighty and think 'oh my god, my pelvic floor's gone' – no, it hasn't. You can do a few exercises and bring it back! Maybe not 100%, but again, not only learning how to activate your pelvic floor but release it.

So you need the Yin and the Yang of your pelvic floor. So once again learning when you train your pelvic floor, to not only hold it but also to release it is just as important. So when I train my ladies to retrain their pelvic floor, is to think of a coffee plunger. So you're drawing up through the coffee plunger and then you're relaxing and releasing the coffee plunger down. It is a very deep muscle, so it comes back to that 70% mental. So you need to mentally visualise that 'cos often if you're in labour you may not feel anything down there. And they'll be saying “push” or “release” or “relax” and you'll be like, “I can't do it”. So tap into that coffee plunger and think “OK, I'm going to gently push down on the coffee plunger” and a lot of women say to me “I was amazed! The coffee plunger worked and I couldn't feel anything down there!” and it just shows you how that connection between mind - body works and the same thing after you have a baby.

The recovery of activating and releasing the pelvic floor, and coming back to the coffee plunger work again. You don't feel anything down there after you've had a baby! So learning correctly; and the best way, as well, is when you're in hospital, through your Midwife or Physio, they'll give you some exercises to help you recover your pelvic floor. So that's a great place to start and then mentally visualising it.

Your Yang is also part of your sympathethic nervous system. It's our on switch. It's where we get things done. It's where we're high alert. It's also the reason why no matter what time of night you always hear your baby cry. You're never going to get into a deep sleep, OK? Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, so that's your Yang.

And then your Yin, is your parasympathetic nervous system. That's where it's about restoration, and nourishment, healing, deep sleep, downtime. So as women we find it really hard to switch off sometimes and nurture that parasympathetic nervous system. And it comes back to your pelvic floor. Releasing and relaxing it because we store a lot of energy down in that lower part of our body. In our tummy, and in our glutes; and a lot of women can overtrain their pelvic floor. But it's a combination of overtraining and not having any downtime.

Remembering to Relax

There's no relaxation or yin energy going into their body. That pelvic floor becomes very very tight, and we're finding that there's an overactive pelvic floor. A lot of babies are quite high and are breech because of it. I'm not a specialist in this area – but I went to a fantastic service for women's physio who talked about it and it just embedded in me how important that Yin/Yang is. And also after you have that baby it's so hard to switch off. It's 24/7, you're up and go-go-go – so one of the first things I say, is nurture that parasympathetic nervous system, that nourishment. When you're breast-feeding or nursing your baby, give them a 100% attention. Get off that phone, get off Facebook, switch off from the world, close your eyes, feel those endorphins coming in and actually release into your milk stream and help the baby go to sleep. That's often why we feel really sleepy when we're breast-feeding. So just let it happen and let it melt over you. It's your body telling you, you need that downtime. And because often, you don't really get to sit down until you breast-feed so it's a really important time, just to shut your eyes for 10 minutes and just enjoy that time and nod off if you need to after you put the baby down and after you've finished feeding.

Motherhood is one of the only things that I've come across in life where it's not a sprint, it's not a short project, it's not ' you just have to get through pregnancy and birth and then it'll all be alright' – it's just something that keeps on going. So unless you do take that time to nourish yourself, and to build that into your life, you can burn-out.

One of my friends, she's also a trainer, she said, “Yep, motherhood just throws you head first into sympathetic nervous system – into that Yang”. So it's really important to find that Yin; and everyone's Yin's different. You know, it might just be sitting down for five minutes with a cup of tea on the back deck. For me it's “Food, Myself and Silence”. I love sitting there with just a beautiful meal, complete silence and just focusing on that eating!

I've had to learn to slow down my eating because as a mother, you just inhale your food because often you're eating on the go, you don't even sit down while you eat. Or you're just finishing off this, finishing off that … And it comes back down to sitting down, nourishing yourself and giving yourself that 10 minutes.

There's an excellent meditation app out there which was actually developed by Beyond Blue, called Mind the Bump. It is an excellent thing to just start incorporating. If you're only going to do one thing, I would recommend doing that. To incorporate that.

And on that as well with Beyond Blue, it's OK, you know, you might feel when post-natal – I mean I personally haven't had post-natal depression – but there's so much pressure on I must go -go-go, I must do-do-do, we put so much pressure on ourselves as women to be perfect, you know, perfectionists – we all are. I always strive to be this perfect mother and be able to do it all, and it's OK to say “look, I can't do this!” “I'm struggling” “I really don't like this!”, you know. It's OK and it's important to have those conversations and let people in and let them know. Let them come over and see the house a mess. That's the way it is.

There's dishes in the sink. And people want to come over and do something and help you, so, it's OK to say, you know “I'm really not coping”, and it's really important to – on the Beyond Blue website – is a fantastic questionnaire, about questions you can go through with your partner about symptoms of post-natal depression. And also about the baby blues, because that's a bit of an unknown. How does it feel, this baby blues thing? When's it going to kick-in? What's going to happen? Have a read through those questions with your partner or someone else in your family, and then they will help you recognise any symptoms and signs; and then it is a lot easier for them to offer help, you know, in different sorts of ways, that will help you and help the baby.

There's also this perception that you've got six weeks after birth to recovery but really, you're in recovery for twelve months after birth. It's so important to adjust your expectations after birth. Your hormones are just all over the place for at least twelve months. That relaxin which is the ligament softening hormone in your body, for a lot of women, doesn't leave your body fully for twelve months. So you are still susceptible to over-stretching and injury. If you had a Caesarean, that's a big surgery, deep cut in your muscles - you need recovery. Breast-feeding, another fluctuation of hormones. There's all of that going on and so your body is in recovery so don't expect anything, and don't put the pressure on to snap back to pre-baby body. You just need everything to even out for that twelve months, and at the same time you're trying to learn what motherhood's all about, but you're just trying to learn what life is all about.

You're both learning and on this amazing journey together, so you've just got to take the pressure off and just breathe and take a few moments every day. You might just be washing your hair which is fantastic when you've got a newborn! It's like “Wow, I never knew how much I'd enjoy this – a shower on my own when I can wash my hair!” it's so unbelievable before having children!

This article was based on an interview with Dahlas Fletcher, owner of Body Fabulous and Preggi Bellies Brisbane, on Exercise during Pregnancy.

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