Recently, elite female athletes have changed our perceptions of what it means to be pregnant. Of course, they’re not the only women who run, swim, and play while carrying babies, but the whole world has seen inspiring images of these Olympians doing things we would not imagine possible.
Okay, maybe we can imagine athletic goddess Serena Williams as able to play some tennis while eight weeks’ pregnant—but for heaven’s sake, she won the Australian Open, without dropping a set. Dana Vollmer, at 26 weeks, swam a 50-meter freestyle preliminary race, less than a year after earning the first Olympic Gold Medal to be won by an American swimmer who is also a mother. Finally, Alysia Montaño has run two 800-meter USA Track and Field Championship races while pregnant. The first was in 2014 at eight months’ pregnant; this year she did it again at five months.
But you don’t have to be a superstar to prove that physical fitness translates to pregnancy fitness. Locally, fitness coach and Koko FitClub owner Diane Knutson conducted her own pregnancy-fitness routine, setting a healthy example for Black Hills area moms-to-be.
“Both labor and recovery would have been harder if I were not in shape,” Diane says. “I can’t imagine what I would have done—because my training came in very handy.” So handy, in fact, that Diane believes her fitness saved the day.
When Diane went into the hospital after about four hours of labor, she was dilated seven centimeters and everyone predicted a quick delivery. However, little Bridgette took a detour, getting caught behind Diane’s pelvic bone, and the two of them did the labor dance for 12 more hours. “Thankfully, I was able to do squats throughout my pregnancy, and so I used the squatting bar in the hospital room. I stayed in that position for about an hour, moving around, helping to reposition the baby. It worked!”
Everyone agrees that it’s best to consult with your doctor before starting any new exercise regime—especially when pregnant—but doctors generally say that if a woman is exercising in her day-to-day life, then she can safely continue “doing her thing” during her pregnancy.
“Regular physical activity during pregnancy improves and maintains physical fitness, which helps with weight management, reduces the risk of gestational diabetes in obese women, and enhances psychological well-being,” says Angela Anderson, MD, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Rapid City Medical Center.
Although scientific trials are limited on the subject, Anderson reports observational studies from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) that also correlate fitness with fewer cesarean and other operative deliveries, as well as better postpartum recovery time. “For those who do not already have an exercise regime, I encourage them to start one,” Dr. Anderson adds. “Even something as simple as walking every day can help lower glucose levels in women with gestational diabetes, help prevent preeclampsia, and even lower overall weight gain during pregnancy.”
For Diane, seeing is believing. An avid hiker and outdoorswoman, she’s seen first-hand the positive impact of regular exercise in her body. However, she’s not alone, since she also trains women at Koko FitClub. “We’ve had pregnant moms at the club, both first- and second-time moms. We help them train until they feel comfortable; sometimes they take some time off and then come back,” she says. She’s seen them through their entire terms—including postpartum recovery. “In my experience, a woman should not come back too fast or hard. I couldn’t even do a treadmill workout for several weeks. You’re sleep deprived, and your body needs time to rest and recover.”
Routines & Cautions
Dr. Anderson notes that pregnancy is a time when women are especially conscious about their bodies and their overall physical fitness. “Women tend to be highly motivated to improve their health during pregnancy, and exercise is a great way to do that,” she says.
Her go-to routine: try to fit in at least 150 minutes per week of exercise. “Yoga is generally safe for pregnant women, and can increase maternal strength and fitness while reducing stress,” she says. “I do recommend avoiding hot yoga sessions, and modifying positions if they are uncomfortable.”
She also recommends walking, and says that whatever exercise you choose, creating a regimen can help—including a five-minute warm up, a 30-minute exercise program, and a five- to ten-minute cool down. “However, at any stage of pregnancy, if you begin feeling ill or have difficulty talking, you may be pushing too hard,” she says.
Of course, some women must be especially cautious about overdoing, and exercise might be limited or even contraindicated for patients with certain conditions. “Bleeding, preeclampsia, and preterm labor are a few reasons to take it easy during pregnancy,” Dr. Anderson says, “and women with heart or lung disease should avoid strenuous exercise.”
She also notes that times have changed. “Bed rest is hardly ever prescribed anymore”—a fact that illustrates how our understandings of pregnancy have changed over recent generations. Still, “most people feel that women are too delicate during pregnancy to exercise,” Dr. Anderson adds. “In most cases, that isn’t true. We encourage women to engage in exercise during all stages of life, including pregnancy. Just remember to consult your physician before beginning a new regimen.”
Pregnancy affords a special moment to pay attention to your baby—and to you. So go for it! If you’re a newly pregnant mom who always wished she’d been more fit, then Dr. Anderson says now’s
the time. Our local moms agree—and all of our experts rely on walking as their foundational, daily exercise.
Plus, if you’re already an elite athlete, keep going. You might not win the Open, but you’ll feel great.