Honouring your fitness journey in pregnancy

With one quick search on Google for “prenatal fitness” or “postpartum exercise” you will come across a barrage of sites that promise a “belly only pregnancy” or “get back to your pre-baby body” or my favourite, a picture of a three day postpartum woman with a miraculously flat belly. How does this make you feel? How is this supposed to make us feel?

What I wanted was to find a safe but challenging workout for myself at that particular stage of my life. I wanted to continue to work hard, I wanted to feel strong, and I wanted to feel prepared both mentally and physically for the birth of my child.

It is neither safe, nor emotionally helpful when our inquiries turn up results that are promoting a belly only pregnancy or a get back in shape as fast as possible program. Telling us that this is what we should want is just setting us up to feel ashamed and resentful of those women we think were able to accomplish this impossible task.

Furthermore, we may be battling feelings that we’ve never felt before. You may be asking yourself how to continue your current fitness regimen while keeping the baby safe. Maybe you feel that anything you do could hurt the baby. Maybe your body is holding you back and you are feeling like a completely different person. These are tough things to deal with, and I myself dealt with them all.

So, how do we as women do this? How do we navigate the hundreds of sites and businesses that are more focused on being thin rather than offering programs that support our bodies at this truly amazing time of our lives? This post is about my journey while I was pregnant and what it took for me to realize that all I truly wanted was to feel good in my body and to grow a healthy baby.

I should note here that there is healthy weight gain and there is excessive weight gain during pregnancy. I am not trying to delegitimize the weight gain recommendations, nor am I trying to tell anyone reading this how much weight they should or should not gain.  This is however a story about how I felt during pregnancy regarding these recommendations and regarding what information is out there to help women navigate this time of their lives.

It all begins in that exciting and terrifying first trimester. The first trimester is ROUGH! It doesn’t matter if you are hanging over a toilet the entire time or not. You are not feeling like yourself. First of all, you are exhausted, and I don’t mean a little more tired than usual, you could nap on a strangers lap on the subway if they’d let you. You may be craving foods that never before appealed to you, or if you’re like me, just want to eat as many bagels as you can.

You’re excited, you’re scared, you’re happy, you’re sleepy, you’re nauseous, you’re bloated; you feel all of these things, and like many women, it is to be kept a secret the entire time! Are you thinking about how you can have a belly only pregnancy? Of course not! It is a miracle just to get off of the couch and do a few stretches on your living room floor at this point. And that is perfectly fine. Do not feel guilty about this. Do not let these images and messages make you feel bad about all of the bagels you’ve eaten, or the lack of exercise you’ve done because your body is working hard enough creating a home that will support your baby for the next nine months.

The official recommendation is to gain between 0- 4 pounds in the first trimester. I gained 10 and I felt bad about it. I felt like a sloth lying on the couch, eating my bagels and Cheerios, and napping any chance I got. I was a very active person and all of a sudden I didn’t run anymore, I didn’t go to my conditioning classes, I barely went to yoga, and I’m not sure I lifted a single weight. I felt depressed and like I couldn’t do the things that I wanted to do.

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When you exercise regularly, your body releases a chemical called endorphin and this makes you feel really good! The endorphins react with receptors in your brain that trigger a positive feeling in your body. That’s why people often refer to how they feel as a “runner’s high” or even feel a post workout euphoria. What I’m getting at here is that exercise makes you feel good, and when all of a sudden I felt I couldn’t do it anymore, I started to emotionally crash.

It wasn’t just that I felt like I wanted to work out, my body was literally going through a withdrawal. It has been proven that after just one week of “forced” inactivity, symptoms of depression will start to set in. However, at the time, I didn’t understand this. I just felt like I wasn’t myself anymore and I was too tired to do anything about it.

In hindsight, it wasn’t that I wanted to continue my regular fitness routine, I felt like garbage. I wanted to want to, and then I started to feel bad about myself. I was so used to pushing my body every day that I didn’t know how to feel if I wasn’t doing that. But I was pushing my body; I was allowing a little egg to root itself safely inside of me so that I could become a mother.

As the second trimester approached I started to feel better. I felt like I could start going to the gym again and going back to my regular yoga practice. Yoga went just fine, albeit no more hot yoga. But the gym was a constant plague in my mind. What should I do there? What is safe? All of the workouts I looked up looked too easy. I wanted a challenge but I was so scared to do anything that might put the baby at risk.

There were times that I went to the gym and did some insanely stupid workouts just to feel like my old self again. I think around 14 weeks I also went for a 6km run, having not run in the last three and a half months; brilliant, I know. Furthermore, I had already gained what I thought was too much weight and was scared I was going to become extremely overweight and unhealthy.

Where did these feelings come from? Were they a product of what I was finding online? I believe in part, yes. I wouldn’t say that I am someone who is easily influenced but in this case, at a time when I was so unsure of myself and my body, I really didn’t know what I wanted. There was a part of me that just didn’t want to give up who or what I thought I was but there was this other part that just wanted to feel good again, and satisfied in this new body.

In the third trimester I felt pretty good. I had some hip problems and some lower back pain, but that was pretty much it. I finally was able to embrace walking, which, let me tell you, took a lot of self-convincing! I went to the gym and did what I could, and I continued to go to my regular yoga classes until around 8 months when my body told me that some prenatal classes would be wonderful at this point. I had finally given up on whatever it was I was holding onto and embraced how I was actually feeling in my body.

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It took a long time for me to get to that point and maybe it happened just out of necessity. Whatever got me there, I was happy and I was excited. I felt strong and prepared for childbirth. I felt like labour was going to be the hardest workout of my life and I was pumped about it! I knew I had done everything I could, both mentally and physically to prepare myself for that day. I gave up on striving for a “belly only pregnancy” or maintaining my workouts up until the very last minute. If I felt good that day, I’d workout, if I didn’t, I’d rest. I focused on preparing myself to be a mother, to provide a positive environment for my growing baby, and to focus on what felt good rather than on what I missed doing.

In the end, I didn’t miss any of it. My daughter is now 20 months old and I still don’t workout the way that I used to, and that’s because it just doesn’t work for me at this time of my life. I get my exercise in, and I am healthy, but things are different now, in such a magnificent way. The topic of post-natal fitness will have to wait for another post but what is important to say is that I am happy with where I am at. Of course I wish I could workout more, and sometimes when I see friends posting about their amazing workouts, I am a bit jealous. But, and this is a big but, I am so much happier spending time watching my baby grow, watching her develop, and being present with her than worrying about my fitness routine.

Now when I see these posts about belly only pregnancies or getting back to your pre-baby body, I just want to say “hey, is this what you really want?” For me it certainly wasn’t, even if at times I thought that it was. Being active is important to me and being a good example for my daughter is very important to me. I feel that I have found a good balance that works for us at this point in our lives. It wasn’t an easy journey and sometimes it is hard to fit it all in, but in the end, I am happy, I am comfortable, and my baby is happy.

On my maternity leave I decided to become a Certified Personal Trainer and a Registered Yoga Teacher. My passion for being healthy and active runs deep and I wanted to be able to share this in a positive way, specifically to newly pregnant women and to new moms. I feel so grateful that I am now able to share my story and to be able to share the knowledge and experience that I have gained.

The benefits of being active during pregnancy are without a doubt a reason to embrace exercise. It reduces back pain, eases constipation, can decrease your chances of gestational diabetes, promotes healthy weight gain, and strengthens your heart and blood vessels. On top of that, all aspects of growth and development of the baby are improved, and the babies tolerate the stresses of late pregnancy, labour, and delivery better than babies of mother’s who did not exercise during pregnancy. These are good reasons to exercise. These are reasons to seek out a program that will work for you specifically.

In the end, it all comes down to how you are feeling. However, it is sometimes very challenging to really know what that is. It is easy to get lost on the Internet, looking at pregnancy workouts and feel that you aren’t doing enough, or that your body doesn’t look like the one in the picture. Although we all just want to be healthy and for our babies to be healthy, the emotions that we feel during pregnancy don’t always allow us to follow that path. If you have been feeling or had felt overwhelmed by similar emotions, I hope that my story has made you feel that you are not alone. Most importantly, I hope that you are able to find peace and ease during one of the most magical times of your life! Nothing actually prepares you to be a mother but you can try to make choices everyday that support you and your growing  baby and hopefully, when that baby arrives, all of those little choices have added up to you feeling ready and prepared to be the mom that you envision yourself to be.

-Kristin Reid