Pre- and Post-natal Fitness
This article has been on hold for a few years now. Although there was much winking about “lockdown babies,” neither I, nor anyone I was associating with, was in the mood to talk about that. It looks like we are slowly crawling our way out of pandemic mode, and switching to endemic coexistence with this ugly virus, and so I thought it might be time to get back to “normal” concerns that deal with life procreation and health maintenance of a less urgent kind.
Enter Carin, a lovely Fitness Coach based in Tangier, Morocco. She is originally from Sweden, and became Muslim while working in Qatar, a little over a decade ago. She is a Certified Pre- and Postnatal Coach, Certified Online Trainer, Stott Pilates Instructor with Prenatal Pilates training and Ashtanga Yoga teacher with prenatal yoga education. As we began working on this article she was pregnant with her second daughter, who is now a healthy and active toddler, mashallah. Despite giving birth and having another young daughter to care for, on top of her online fitness coaching business and website (with all the social media involvement that requires), she continued to work with me on the article wholeheartedly and with impressive enthusiasm. All the advice given here is not only based on her training, scientific research, or her experience with her clients, but she has lived it herself, and was in the thick of applying it as we wrote this article, which in my mind gives the empathy and graciousness that other articles might sometimes lack.
If you’re pregnant or thinking of starting a family, you may have given some thought to health issues, such as nutrition and exercise. The benefits of proper nutrition are very widely discussed, and pre-natal vitamins are routinely prescribed around the globe. However, there still exists a lot of misinformation surrounding exercising during pregnancy. Let us clarify a few points on this matter, before we begin.
Although there is no argument surrounding maintaining an overall active and healthy lifestyle, there are still many concerns surrounding continuing to do so while pregnant. Each individual case is different, and we should always consult our physician to make sure we don’t fall within a risk category. However, there is increasing scientific evidence that moderate regular physical exercise prior to, during, and post- pregnancy is conducive to better outcomes not only for the mother, but also for the child.
Benefits of exercising during pregnancy
Prenatal physical training is a great yard stick to predict the risk of complications and to enhance physical and mental health. An increasing body of research points at significant improvements in the health of the mother and decreased complications during pregnancy. Such advantages include the reduction in incidence of gestational diabetes mellitus, pre-eclampsia, gestational hypertension, excessive gestational weight gain, and for the baby there are fewer newborn complications. Post-partum depression also seems to be less severe among exercising women. Many of these pregnancy- related health complications have been on the rapid increase over the last three decades, possibly due to rising rates of maternal obesity, which would obviously be mitigated by exercising.
A long list of medical professionals have reached a consensus on guidelines for fitness during pregnancy, which was printed in 2019 and is available for free online.
In it you’ll find a series of recommendations to all women of child-bearing age, on how to initiate physical exercise before pregnancy to prepare the body for the physical demands of this period. However, the article emphasizes on the importance of exercise during pregnancy as well. It states that even pregnant women who were not previously active are strongly encouraged to begin some form of physical activity, as doing so has been shown to lead to less complications during pregnancy and at delivery. The sooner you are able to begin getting physically active, the better. Despite all this encouraging news, many women are still very reluctant to start exercising when faced with a pregnancy, due to long-standing fears surrounding the safety of the exercises. So let’s go over some of the exercises that are generally advisable during pregnancy.
You may have heard of Kegel exercises, or pelvic floor muscle training. This is a simple, non-strenuous exercise that most women never hear of until they get pregnant, precisely because its benefits are directly related to pelvic health during and after pregnancy. These are basic and gentle pelvic rises that strengthen your pelvic muscles and which, if done daily, help prevent urinary incontinence during pregnancy. There are many videos online that show you how to perform them properly. The previous video by Michigan Medicine is more informational and theoretical, as it explains the benefits and mechanics of Kegels and other pelvic floor training. However, this video is more practical. Both come to about 10 minutes altogether. This notwithstanding, pregnancy health isn’t limited to Kegels.
Physical training should aim to maintain your muscle mass, and if possible, strengthen your weaker areas, including those that will be put to more strenuous tests during pregnancy, at delivery, and post-partum. Furthermore, exercise doesn’t just prepare your body, it also alleviates the mental stress, boosts your energy, and aids relaxation.
A combination of strength-training concentrating on thighs and glutes, in conjunction with pelvic floor stabilization (with some emphasis on back and shoulder muscles), as well as core stability (which you’ll need a lot of immediately post- delivery), should form the bulk of your training. Your center of gravity shifts constantly during pregnancy, so having strong core muscles (back, obliques, abdominals, glutes, and thighs) can be extremely beneficial to maintain balance and continue exercising and going about your daily activities comfortably and safely.
Maintaining muscle strength, or even increasing it, and keeping your heart strong through cardio exercise are two ways to ensure you get the most benefits for yourself and your baby. One of the problems many women face when pregnant (partly due to the fear surrounding movement, the instability felt as a result of weaker core muscles under the strain of a shifting center of gravity), is unwanted weight gain in excess of what would be expected for a healthy pregnancy. Exercising, along with a healthy diet would mitigate such a side-effect, and ease your return to your pre-pregnancy weight once the baby is born. You should not be in a rush, or feel despair, gaining weight during pregnancy is natural and healthy, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. Losing the weight after the birth depends on your health, the baby’s health, and many other factors, including whether or not you were exercising before and/or during pregnancy.
Strength training combined with a well-balanced diet are key to weight management. Muscles burn more energy than fat, so strengthening your muscles speeds up your metabolism, and allows you a bit more flexibility and ease when faced with weight gain.
To improve your breathing and relaxation, and prevent muscle soreness, you might want to look towards relaxing stretches, but be cautious of overstretching, as your body releases a hormone called relaxine during pregnancy that makes your body more flexible (in preparation for your expanding abdomen), so don’t go all out with your stretches.
Where are you?
Amina Khan has a few videos specifically designed for Ramadan, each between 5 and 12 minutes long, in which different muscles are worked in sequence, using a variety of methods and modifications for every fitness level. She also releases webinars on the health benefits of exercising during Ramadan, though they are not specific to pregnant women, but of a more general sort. She has also published a book, only available in PDF for now, with exercise schedules, recommendations, recipes, and tons of Ramadan related information. This book is available on her site (check her videos for links), and all proceeds go to feed the needy in various parts of the world.
Carin also has a Ramadan-specific e-guide, downloadable for free on her site, where you can find tips on how to prepare for Ramadan, how to make time for everything (including an hour by hour schedule to jot in your daily program), grocery lists, dua’s, all kinds of helpful tips on everything from how to fit in all your water to how to read Qur’an, and it even has a “Ramadan habit tracker,” to help you stay on track. Having a plan makes your success much more likely, so take advantage of these free resources, and make this your best Ramadan yet!
If you are not pregnant yet but are hoping to start a family, and would like to keep strong throughout the year regardless, there are countless programs online that you could join, based on your likes and dislikes, your needs, and limitations. If these needs and limitations are very specific to you, Carin can design a program that is tailor made for you, and coach you not only through a thorough exercise program, but a nutritional guide as well.
If you were active before pregnancy, continue doing what you were doing before, with only slight modifications, such as opting for lower impact cardio (avoid impact sports, and bouncing as well), and avoiding front-loading exercises (where your abdomen is facing the floor) from about week 21. You may continue to do stability and light core exercises throughout your pregnancy, but you should avoid crunches and sit-ups. Also to be avoided, are pivots and rotations, as they may cause harm to your placenta.
During pregnancy, relaxine (a hormone that relaxes ligaments) makes you extra flexible, so you need to be extra self-aware and don’t go all out. Stretch gently, without over-stretching. If you are already fit, but want more guidance as to modifications specific to pregnancy, I can recommend Sydney Cummings, who is a fitness instructor currently 28 weeks pregnant. She goes through the whole gamut of exercises (cardio, strength and resistance training for all parts of the body) with or without equipment, ranging from 20 to 40 minutes long. She does have background music and talks throughout her workout, and wears short shorts and sports bras for her videos, so be forewarned if these are aspects that would bother you. Alternatively, Carin does offer online coaching to all her clients, and offers inspirational support on a regular basis on her IG and Facebook page .
Trimester by Trimester Break-down
Let’s get into a bit more specifics on what to expect and how to prepare, trimester by trimester.
During the first trimester you may feel really fatigued–, that’s normal. Don’t push yourself too hard. Take breaks when you need them. Your body needs to rest in order to do its job. If you’re light-headed, or can’t keep your balance, hold on to something for stability and safety, or sit down.
Starting from the second trimester your center of gravity starts to shift, having a strong core before you get to this stage would significantly help, however your body is constantly changing, so it will nevertheless require that you pay special attention and care when it comes to balancing. You should be extra careful, whether you are used to doing balancing poses or not: hold on to something steady for stability if needed. If you feel pressure in your lower abdomen, stop what you’re doing, and relax.
By the third trimester, you will notice that you have less room to breathe, and you’ll find your mobility hampered by the size and weight of the baby. This doesn’t mean you should stop what you’ve been doing. You may continue to do light cardio, strength training, and appropriate stretches, provided that there are no contraindications from your physician. Continue to listen to your body, and take it easy. The idea is to help your body carry a healthy pregnancy, not prepare for a triathlon. You are aiming at maintaining and slightly strengthening your muscles, not breaking records.
When to stop
Being a bit tired, sweaty, or out of breath is normal after or during physical activity. But when you’re pregnant you tend to breathe more heavily and sweat more profusely, so do keep this in mind. Your body might not require as much effort on your part to break a sweat, but you should not over-exert yourself to the point of exhaustion. Be kind to yourself.
You should not feel any pain anywhere, bleeding, contractions, dizziness, shortness of breath, or leaking. If you do, stop what you’re doing and contact your OBGYN immediately.
Wear loose, flexible, breathable, and comfortable clothing while exercising. Don’t overlook warm-ups and cool-downs, and keep your routine manageable. Avoid exercising in extremely hot or extremely humid weather.
It’s always a good idea to stretch your muscles after physical activity, to ease or prevent muscular stiffness and soreness later on. But stretching is a beneficial activity in and of itself. There are many stretches in the practice of Yoga, which include several tried and tested pregnancy-friendly poses. Avoid exposing your abdomen to the risk of impact, and, as mentioned previously: don’t overstretch. Remember to skip pivots and rotations.
If you follow these guidelines, you should be able, with your doctor’s permission, to maintain or even improve your health, your pregnancy outcome, and your child’s health. We hope that we were able to show you the benefits of beginning an exercise routine as soon as possible, and that you’ll soon be on your way to a healthy and happy pregnancy, inshallah.
At the very least, you should try to walk every day, and do a bit of stretching if you are unable to strength train or dedicate half an hour a day to resistance training. Walking is a whole body exercise, it’s good for your mental health, and your heart. Pregnant or not, walking and doing so outdoors (preferably in nature) does wonders for your spirit, and will get in the very minimum requirements for a healthy pregnancy, a happy Ramadan, and a stronger you!
Whatever you do, please don’t take any of this advice as replacement for your Doctor’s opinion. Consult with your doctor before starting, listen to your body, don’t over-do it, be mindful of technique, and remember to breathe (don’t hold your breath). All this is time-honored advice in any circumstance, but during pregnancy it’s all the more important to abide by it. Try to maintain a slow and steady rhythm, develop a schedule that is feasible, not demanding, and therefore manageable. Consistency is the key, and the more doable your exercise plan is, the more likely you are to follow through with it. Happy and healthy Ramadan to you all!