Friday, October 11, 2013

Pregnancy, Fitness, Being Strong, and Realizing You Don't Have to Prove Anything to Anybody

I have to admit, I've been a little irritated lately.  Lots of pregnant women in the news these days doing things to "prove that pregnancy isn't a disease"   And they are doing things that I really wouldn't recommend a woman in her third trimester do.  Lifting heavy weights, running marathons, maybe there are some entering lumberjack competitions, I have no idea.

Pregnancy is just beautiful.  Period. 
And then there are those, like this woman in the Huffington Post Article, claiming that certain types of exercise practically guarantee a healthier pregnancy and easier delivery.  This is complete and utter bullshit.  I'll be frank, intense exercisers have their share of miscarriages and morbidly obese inactive people can have perfectly healthy pregnancies with two hour natural deliveries.  Your exercise program is not a guarantee of anything.

The truth is, exercise is good for you, even when you are pregnant.  And a good moderate exercise program will probably help you maintain your weight and give you more stamina in the delivery room.  What an exercise program, no matter how light or aggressive, will NOT do is the following:
1.  Make your hips big enough to safely deliver your baby.
2.  Eliminate risks of pre-eclampsia.
3.  Prevent placental abruptions.
4.  Counter any of the genetic or structural reasons you might "fail to progress" or need a C-section.
5.  Make labor any less painful.
6.  Prevent developmental disorders

I was very active in all three of my pregnancies.  I walked, lifted weights, moved heavy furniture, and sometimes I would run after my toddlers to, you know, save them from being squished by a car.  I once ran up 5 flights of stadium stairs to get cotton candy for my two year old when I was 8 months pregnant (yes, this was a "not smart" moment).  But, you try running up 5 flights of stadium stairs and you'll see that I was not really that badly out of shape.  And yet, I had two 29+ hour labors.  My only sub-12 hour labor was due to massive amounts of pitocin which I wouldn't wish on anyone.  And in case you are wondering, yes, labor hurts.  I did the hypnobabies program for two of them and it helped, but I still had a lot of pain during transition.

Being able to do cool stuff with your kids is awesome.
It also took me about 5-8 months to really have enough energy to start training hard again after each pregnancy.  I developed diastasis during my first pregnancy and so dealt with a lot of core weakness.  I dislocated both hips squatting with no weight one day when I was 8 weeks post-partum with my second so that caused a bit of pain for a while.  I was also breastfeeding and didn't get a lot of sleep.  My body changed drastically during those 5 years of being pregnant, post-partum, and breastfeeding.

And yet, I have friends who started running again as soon as they got the go ahead from their doctors.  I knew a woman who seemed to have reformed her six-back within hours of giving birth to her fourth baby.  I know many women who got right back in the gym and never looked back.  I also know women who had joint pain, hormonal changes, and such weak cores that their backs hurt too much to stand upright for over a year.  And that's not even addressing post-partum depression and its milder form:  the baby blues.  The baby blues are not just about depression, they can cause a lot of anxiety as well and this anxiety causes us to push and judge ourselves for not living up to some imaginary standard of what we thought we should be as mothers.

All in all.  Its hard.  And if you are a mother or about to become one, I'm proud of you for just getting through it.

Bottom line, everyone is different.  Just because runway supermodel mom can wear a thong two days after having her 7th baby doesn't mean you should be able to as well.  How we carry our babies, how our deliveries go, and how we recover is entirely unique to our bodies, our genetics, and how well we're cared for, both by ourselves and our loved ones, during this time.

Watching them get awesome at their
own stuff is even better.
So, if you are pregnant and wondering if you should take this time to learn how to powerlift, attempt a 100 mile trail run, or learn how to do gymnastics just so you can keep up with all your "peers" who are doing the same thing, relax.  Its okay.  You don't have to.   Having a baby is pretty badass in and of itself and focusing on what your baby needs and not what someone else's ego needs is pretty important.

So, back to the exercise part.  Not all pregnancies are planned so if this news is sprung upon you suddenly, well, keep doing what you're doing until you can't do it anymore.  And that pretty much goes for all of you.  But, I have a few caveats.  Do be careful in the second and third trimester.  Your body produces a hormone called relaxin.  This is to relax the ligaments in your hips so your baby can come out more easily.  It will also make your ribcage bigger and make you go up a shoe size.  Some of these things reverse with time, some do not.  But, if you're loading your joints with weight or ballistic movements, realize you may be getting a bit more stretch and stress than you normally would.  You can lift weights, but I would not be maxing anything out at this time.

Also, although your baby is pretty well cushioned, placental abruption can happen from falls.  My husband is an ER doctor and has seen it often enough not to discount this risk.  A full abruption means the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus.  You can imagine what happens next.

Additionally, if you're like me, pregnancy brings a great wave of uncoordination.  I couldn't really pick up anything without a 50-75% chance of dropping it immediately.  Complex weighted movements or anything requiring balance would have been a terribly bad idea for me.  They may not be a bad idea for others, but they were for me.  So, I tried to just walk in a straight line as much as possible and I lifted weights while seated or standing still.

Intense exercise brings with it an increased heart rate and increased body temperature.  Think about it.  You're not supposed to sit in hot tubs, so try not to cook the little guy by getting overheated in the gym.  And do we really need to get out of breath when supplying oxygen to the person who may one day be changing our diapers and feeding us gruel when we can no longer feed ourselves?  No.  You can give me all the reasons getting hot and out of breath for 30 minutes is a noble cause when you are 8 months pregnant, but I would never recommend it for any of my clients.  Why?  Because I believe it to be an unnecessary risk.

And then what about after baby comes?  We all want to get out of this weird deflated not-my-body fatsuit we've seem to acquired, but we need to think about what has happened to it:
1.  Your core muscles got devastated and you've learned to move without engaging it at all.  This causes an upper/lower body separation and that has to be fixed asap.
2.  You lost some muscle mass.  This is why you may be back to your non-pregnancy weight, but look squishier in the mirror.   (My kids used to like to play with my tummy skin like playdough, talk about an ego-smack.)
3.  You're probably really tired and a little stressed out from having a new little one(s) added to the family.
4.  Your joints are loose and not likely to firm up for about 5-6 months.

This is the stuff that actually matters.
Family.  Happiness.  Love.
So, what do we do?  Getting back into the gym and your old routines may simply not work for you right now.  You move differently, your joints are loose, and you've lost some structural support.  My advice as a three time mom and someone who cares, is to take it easy.  Don't wear yourself out right now, you've got more important things in your life, but that doesn't mean you can't start making some progress.

Taking baby out for walks in a stroller or in a sling of some kind is great for getting your aerobic exercise in.  And, they usually sleep, which is even better.  I would definitely not recommend doing any kind of situps or ab flexion exercises, but standing core work (with a support belt if needed) is a great way to get your core back into shape.  Medicine ball exercises such as Russian twists, ball slams, side throws, or just moving it around your body will teach your core to re-engage.  Once you can engage your core more readily, add in some pushups and squats.  Some bodyweight work or even light resistance training will help your core get back into shape.  Light kettlebell swings, windmills, and presses can start to get your hips and shoulders involved in your core stabilization.  Without restoring that core strength first, you're going to have a hard time doing anything else well.

There is a condition called diastasis where the rectus abdominus splits down the middle.  There is connective tissue holding it together, but it usually results in a pot belly and even a noticeable ridge when you engage your core.  This happens naturally when your belly expands and in most cases, it will resolve.  However, in some cases it does not and surgery is required to repair it.  Ab flexion exercises can make it much worse so if you suspect you have disastasis, ask your doctor.   Wearing a support belt during the day can help it come back together and prevent fatigue.  Do a google images search and you'll see how it can affect women post partum.  A lot of women feel they need to exercise that belly away, but if its diastasis, you can't.

So, in conclusion, don't believe the hype.  Try and get some moderate exercise during your pregnancy, but if you can't, no big deal.  We all can't be superheros, but like I said, just getting through that delivery with a healthy baby is a pretty big deal.  Be proud of yourself for that because you just got the best prize ever given out for anything.  Take it easy on yourself in the post-partum period as well.  Time will solve most of you post-pregnancy problems and taking a moderate approach to recovery will serve you better in the long run.