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The Pregnant Athlete

While traditional wisdom tells women to “take it easy” during pregnancy, new evidence shows it’s not harmful, and may even benefit your baby, to stay active.

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Many doctors would be horrified at the idea of a pregnant woman competing in a triathlon. But that’s exactly what Brandi Dion did, just two weeks before she was due to give birth. “It was amazing how good I felt,” she says. And she had a beautiful, healthy baby.

A triathlon and boot-camp coach, fitness trainer, and co-author of The Pregnant Athlete, Dion has continued her one-to-three-hour daily exercise routines through two pregnancies, with the blessing of her doctor. And many of her pregnant clients maintain intense exercise routines.

Although it’s important to recognize changes in your body and adapt, she says, “There are old myths.” One is that a mother’s exercise will interfere with the baby’s growth. In fact, research shows that intense exercise during pregnancy has no effect on the normal development of babies, although they tend to have less body fat. And the mother’s exercise improves blood supply to the placenta, which is good for the baby.

Before her first pregnancy, Dion recalls, “I didn’t think I would be able to do boot camps or continue to bike and run and race.” Although willing to make the sacrifice to have a family, it wasn’t an appealing prospect. But then, an enlightened doctor gave her the facts—that she could continue her fitness routine, while keeping her doctor posted on how things were going.

“A green light went on,” she recalls, and she signed up for competitive events. “It helped me stay motivated and in shape, having those goals,” she says. “It definitely kept me ‘up’ mentally, emotionally, and physically, and helped me through my pregnancies, which I’m sure affected my babies—they were awesome and healthy!”

Old Attitudes Die Hard

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists considers it safe to continue exercise before and during pregnancy, if a woman is healthy, there are no complications, and she feels up to it. Yet, many physicians automatically recommend “taking it easy.” Spouses and other family members can be another source of discouragement, often because they are uninformed.

The key, says Dion, is to find a doctor who understands fitness (more likely if he or she is a fitness enthusiast or athlete) and supports your goals. Equally important, disclose fully and in detail what your workouts include, such as how long and how fast you run, how much weight you lift, how often, and any other activities you do. And then, follow your doctor’s advice.

Reality Check

“If you want to have kids, start getting into the best shape of your life before you get pregnant,” advises Dion. Then, you can maintain your fitness, adapting as needed as the pregnancy progresses. This way, it’s easier to stave off cravings for unhealthy foods, to control weight gain, and to get back in shape after having a baby. And developing more muscle control will help with contractions during delivery.

However, exercising while pregnant is not as easy as usual. “Expect everything to be a lot harder,” says Dion. Even though you may be going at the same pace, or slower, it will feel as though you are working harder, simply because your body is changing. Heart rate goes up more quickly at first. In later months, joints and ligaments become looser, and there is more pressure on the pelvis, at which time single-leg exercises aren’t recommended.

“It’s going to be uncomfortable, but you can do it,” says Dion; “Do the best you can and have fun, and it’ll be worthwhile.”

After her second delivery, which occurred one-and-a-half hours after her water broke, Dion was below her pre-pregnancy weight within a month, and was back to training intensely a couple of weeks after that. And she was breastfeeding.

These are some of her top tips:

  • “Eating for two” is a myth. Healthy weight gain is only 25–35 pounds, and a baby in the womb requires only an additional 300 healthy calories daily.
  • An exercise program should include varying intensities interspersed with weight training. Before getting pregnant, a boot camp is a good way to get started.
  • When running, pressure on the bladder means more frequent bathroom breaks, but don’t let these deter you. Get creative in finding places to stop along your route.
  • In the later months, an elastic support belt, the kind construction workers use, can take pressure off the lower back. In the front, it should support the bottom of the belly.
  • Although most types of physical activity are safe to continue, find a substitute for ones where you are likely to lose your balance, fall, or suffer impact injuries, such as contact sports, downhill skiing, scuba diving (because decompression can harm the baby), horseback riding, using a trampoline, or parachuting.

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