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Q&A with Kathleen on pregnancy/postpartum fitness

Kathleen Donahoe is a founding instructor of Oh Baby! Fitness and is an ACE certified personal trainer specialized in training pre/postnatal populations. She is the senior instructor for Oh Baby! Fitness in Atlanta, and teaches pre and postnatal Pilates, yoga, weight lifting and water aerobics. Kathleen knows more than any childless person should about strollers, breast pumps and the insanity that is Babies-R-Us.

Okay, let’s talk about fitness during pregnancy. Any tips for staying fit while dealing with morning sickness, back pain, a belly the size of a manatee, and . . . *whispering* hemorrhoids?

I think everyone gets a free pass on exercising during their first trimester—I think just getting up off the couch to pee (for the thousandth time) in between naps counts as exercise for those first 12 weeks or so. I was told by an OB that the work the body is doing during the first trimester is equivalent to hiking uphill five miles everyday. I have no idea if that’s true, but I know that most pregnant women FEEL that tired during those first few months, so I fully support resting, and wrapping your brain around the idea that you’re going to grow a human being as plenty of exercise for the first few months.

Normally around 12-15 weeks pregnant woman experience a surge of energy, and decide maybe it’s time to alternate napping with some sort of exercise. People have various reasons — sometimes it’s about the weight gain, sometimes it’s about getting ready for labor, and sometime’s it’s about trying to exert a little control over your body. If you exercised before, I think it’s great to continue doing what you were doing pre-pregnancy, especially if you have access to a trainer or instructor that can guide you through the few modifications (avoiding supine exercises, avoiding obliques, taking care of protecting your crazy loose joints, etc) you may need to make when pregnant.

As silly as it sounds, water aerobics is one of the best things for pregnant woman. If you can get over the idea of getting your pregnant self into a bathing suit (GACK- I know) then it can be really helpful. Water aerobics helps with some of the biggest pregnancy complaints: swelling, back pain, sciatica, and that feeling of weighing a billion pounds. You’ll feel lighter, and let’s be honest, telling your friends you’re taking a water aerobics class is funny.

What’s the lowdown on doing crunches and that sort of thing after having a baby? Are there special concerns with your ab muscles after they’ve housed a whole entire human for several months?

Most women know that their ab muscles have been SUPER stretched out over those 40 weeks. It’s primarily the center (rectus) abdominals that are stretched out, and they often split down the center (diastasis recti). This is a normal condition, but one that you need to have your OB check (I suggest at 28 weeks pregnant, and then again at your appointment 6 weeks after you deliver). For the first six months postpartum I would avoid oblique work because the middle line of those center abs have been stretched and overworking the obliques (the outer core muscles) before strengthening the center abs can sometimes exacerbate that splitting.

Simply put, stick to exercises where you roll up and down your spine and/or lift your legs up and down. Try to keep away from twisting exercises. If you can, find a Pilates instructor who specializes in postpartum work, and take a few classes so you know what is most helpful, and what to avoid.

Or even more simply put: basic crunches are always good. Plank is great. Pushups are one of the best core exercises around. If you do those, you’ll be headed in the right direction.

What are some of the best exercises to do postpartum (after getting the doctor’s okay, of course)?

I think lunges and squats and push ups cover about 80% of most people’s goals. If you can get yourself to do 50 squats, lunges and push ups every other day for those first few crazy months, I’d say you’re way ahead of the pack.

After you get those basics down, most woman still have a little flab (or you know, a lot. Pregnancy is nuts) to get rid of. I’ve found that a serious interval training program, alternating with a good core class (Pilates, etc) is a pretty fail proof plan. I tell my clients that the quicker they can get used to that puke-y, I HATE EXERCISE I AM GOING TO DIE place, the quicker they will get to their goals. Using weight training and toning exercises as cardio, just by increasing pace and intensity and cutting down on rest time between exercises can be really effective. If you have a series of exercises you like to do (squats, lunges, sit-ups, push ups, jumping jacks) time yourself each time you do the circuit, and be sure that you meet or beat your previous time EVERY SINGLE TIME. Again, feeling puke-y is a great thing.

Do you have any suggestions for how new moms can find the time for exercise? I mean, sometimes naptimes are WAY TOO SHORT.

It’s hard because as soon as moms have figured out how to work exercise into their schedule, their babies grow or teethe or decide to stop napping and all of a sudden the schedule, along with exercise, is thrown out the window. I think being flexible, and being aware that what works this week probably won’t work next week is the key.

Some ideas about how to exercise and be a mom:

- It seems crazy, but I think a very basic way is GET OUTSIDE. If you’re outside it’s 90% more likely that you’ll be active (I totally just made that percentage up, but you know. Close enough)

- Find a 20 minute video that you like to do. (30 Day Shred was the hot one for a while, and I still think it’s a great place to start)

- Work out with other moms. Find a mom and baby class, or start a walking group. The camaraderie will be more valuable than the exercise, but it will keep you exercising. It’s a win-win.

- Find a gym with daycare that takes babies. Knowing that you get an hour without the crying and changing of diapers will make you want to go to the gym. And take some time to chill out in the sauna.

I know for me it was a crazy experience body-image-wise to get bigger and bigger over the months and then just about when I’d really started to accept my pregnant body and find it beautiful — BLAM! Now I was in the postpartum stage: saggy, exhausted, sore, and still way too big for my regular clothes, only without the benefit of the round pregnant belly. Any advice to dealing with those bizarre ups and downs, and being kind to your new body after baby?

I know that it’s hard to get past just trying to get down to that pre-pregnancy weight (or often, pre-trying to get pregnant weight, as women often gain weight with that stress too, which = pretty much the most unfair thing ever), but I think picking an event to train to is a great way to stop focusing on the number on the scale and start focusing on your body’s ability. This could be a 5k, sprint triathlon, or a charitable race (AIDS ride, etc). Starting to lock into what your new body is capable of, rather than just how different it feels (and let’s be honest, looks— gack, boobs!) can be a great energizer, and also really help those body image issues.

Pregnancy is nuts, but being a new mom can be just as disorienting, so much so that some women don’t surface for a few years. As cheesy as it sounds: I think exercise can be the best way out of that disorientation and sense of drowning in ‘everything is different.’ It can be a way for women to settle back into themselves after the ultimate out-of-body experience of growing and birthing a human. Oh, and also: buy a great pair of jeans that you can wear until you fit into your pre-pregnancy clothes. You’ll miss the comfy pregnancy jeans, but you’ll feel like a hot mom, which, let’s be honest, is probably the best thing ever.


(Thanks, Kathleen!)

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7 Responses to “Q&A with Kathleen on pregnancy/postpartum fitness”

  1. Joanna Says:

    Those are really helpful and, more importantly, realistic tips. I had a baby four months ago and have definitely felt something “off” when I’m doing sit-ups that engage my obliques–now I know why! Thank you.

  2. Leah Says:

    Great article. My baby is seven weeks old and I started my workout routine just last week (after the doc’s okay). Today was my first go at “30 Day Shred” and oh, I got to that pukey place for sure! I’ve been thinking about training for a 7K this summer, and this has definitely changed that from a tentative goal to a solid one.

  3. Carrie Says:

    Do you have any specific DVD recommendations for postpartum women that we can do at home? My “baby” just turned 2 but most of my body weaknesses are still related to having been pregnant with his giant self, strange pooch below the belly button, etc. This article gave me some great starting points, thanks.

  4. Kathleen Says:

    Joanna: I’m so glad this was helpful! I’d revisit those oblique exercises in a few months– they should feel a little more normal then.

    Leah: I’m so excited to hear you are committing to a 7K– that’s fantastic. Good luck with the 30DS– and hooray puke-y place! Many congrats on getting back on the workout bandwagon with a seven week old.

    Carrie: I’d suggest that 30 Day Shred, or a similar cardio program (Turbo Jam is another good one) alternating with a core video (probably a Pilates program) for those lower abs. When looking for a video I’d suggest finding one that has a workout that lasts 20 minutes or so— just because I know it’s hard to commit to longer than that with little ones.

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