Happy Mother’s Day to all of the amazing moms who somehow get it all done! As a mom myself of two teenagers, I wrote this blog about the importance of fitness and wellness before pregnancy and at every stage of parenting, how it has kept me sane through the years (well sort of sane), and how working fitness into family activities is key.
Being a mom comes with many joys and challenges and preparing yourself both mentally and physically will help your journey into motherhood and beyond. Even before you are a mom and contemplating having a child, being physically fit and emotionally ready is important for a healthy pregnancy, easier labor and recovery from childbirth, improved mental health, and essential for getting back into shape post baby.
I’ll be honest, even though my husband and I had been together for 17 years, I was ambivalent about having children and having a lot of fun (which is why I was 38 and 40 when I had them!) but had the benefit of already teaching several fitness classes a week when I first got pregnant. I am happy to say I was in great shape when I got pregnant and was able to maintain almost all of my activities with some modifications as my belly grew - like avoiding high impact activities so I didn’t pee myself (it’s definitely a thing!) and not lying on my belly. I even taught a Body Pump class and walked 5 miles the day I had my oldest daughter. It is called labor for a reason and it definitely helps to be your fittest prior to delivering your baby.
According to the National Institute of Health (1), exercising before you get pregnant may help your body deal with all of the changes that you will go through during pregnancy and labor. The amount of exercise you are able to do during pregnancy should be based on your overall health and how active you are before you get pregnant. Most women who already exercise can safely maintain their current exercise program throughout their pregnancy with some modifications.
Exercising During Pregnancy
My pre-natal care was provided through the UNC Nurse Midwives Group, who encouraged me to continue exercising as long as I was comfortable, could breathe, and did not overheat. Of course, before you begin an exercise program while pregnant, make sure you have your health care provider's OK. Although exercise during pregnancy is generally good for both mother and baby, your doctor might advise you not to exercise if there is a particular medical condition that may prevent you from doing so, as occasionally the risks outweigh the benefits.
According to the Center For Disease Control (2), Physical activity during pregnancy benefits a woman’s overall health. Moderate-intensity physical activity by healthy women during pregnancy increases or maintains cardiorespiratory fitness, reduces the risk of excessive weight gain and gestational diabetes, and reduces symptoms of postpartum depression. Excessive weight gain during pregnancy can also increase the risk of excessive postpartum weight retention, future obesity, and an infant born with high birth weight.
In addition, health.gov (3) declares that there is strong scientific evidence to show that the risks of moderate-intensity activity done by healthy women during pregnancy are very low, and do not increase risk of low birth weight, preterm delivery, or early pregnancy loss. Some evidence suggests that physical activity may reduce the risk of pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia, reduce the length of labor and postpartum recovery, and reduce the risk of having a Cesarean Section.
According to the Mayo Clinic (4), there are many benefits to exercising during pregnancy like:
· Boosts your mood and energy levels bloating and swelling
· Boost your mood and energy levels
· Helps you sleep better
· Prevents excess weight gain
· Promotes muscle tone, strength and endurance
Exercise Guidelines During Pregnancy
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (5), for most pregnant women, at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise is recommended on most, if not all, days of the week. Walking is a great exercise for beginners as it provides moderate aerobic conditioning with minimal stress on your joints. I love group fitness classes and recommend them as long as the instructor is nationally certified and you let them know you are pregnant before class so they can suggest modifications. Pregnancy is not a time to push it to your limit but you don’t have to back off either. The important thing is to listen to your body! Remember to warm up, stretch, and cool down. Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and be careful to avoid overheating.
Even if you are just starting an exercise program during pregnancy, regular exercise can help you cope with the physical changes and build stamina for the challenges ahead. If you haven't been exercising regularly, use pregnancy as your motivation to begin, but start with 10 minutes of moderate intensity exercise and build up to 30 minutes or more from there by increasing the duration by 5 minutes at a time.
Pregnancy and Connection To Other Future Moms
Preparing for motherhood is exciting and scary at the same time. Exercise not only reduces stress but is a great way to meet other future moms who may wind up your lifelong friends. Doing pregnancy classes like pre-natal Yoga or FIT4BABY classes will get you in touch with your body and baby while connecting you with other pregnant moms, who will hopefully be part of your post-baby fitness community.
FIT4MOM, a local group fitness community, is currently utilizing our space at FIT Carrboro for a class, and we can’t be happier to be part of their participants' journeys into motherhood! Cassie Clark, the owner of the Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Pittsboro FIT4Mom and mother of a 3 and 6-year-old says, “FIT4BABY is a safe and fun environment for pregnant mamas to work out at their comfort levels. The instructors are trained to be able to modify any of the exercises to meet the mom where she is. It's also nice because our clients get to meet other moms that can understand what they are going through and be there for one another. It's an excellent workout but it becomes so much more than that!”
Training Smart Before, During, and After Baby With The Help of a Qualified Trainer
Lauren Stewart, co-owner of FIT Carrboro and Certified Pregnancy & Postpartum Athleticism Coach, has trained several pregnant clients as well as helped them get in great shape before and after pregnancy. Lauren's client Amanda says, “Staying strong with Lauren through both pregnancies and post-partum is how I had the energy to keep up with my toddler while pregnant and now as a mother of 2 under 2! I’ve been lucky to be motivated by the entire FIT team.”
Lauren says she became interested in becoming a Certified Pregnancy & Postpartum Athleticism Coach because, “People who have been pregnant ever in their lives make up a large percentage of the population of people who seek personal training services, but standard education for fitness professionals does not go into great depth about the implications of pregnancy and athleticism."
Lauren enjoys training pregnant clients because, “it's so fun for me to approach each client both from the athlete performance side and also from the motherhood side. It is really a gift to be able to spend time with my female clients, helping them navigate connecting their changing bodies to their changing minds. There's a ton of information out there - some good and some bad, some old and some new - and being a resource and source of encouragement is really rewarding for me. And sometimes this information doesn't reach women until much later in life. Women are so powerful. I want to be someone who elevates other women.”
Exercising in the Early Post-Partum Baby Stage
I (Gayle) was glad I could continue teaching and exercising through my pregnancy and very happy I was back to it six weeks later with my doctor’s approval. Lifting weights through my pregnancy definitely helped me carry around my baby in the carrier (and the heavy diaper bag!) and gave me a great foundation as my children grew. I walked both babies all over town, first in a sling and then pushing a stroller (uphill is hard especially with a double stroller!). Walking and teaching helped my mental health, created a daily routine, got the kids and me outside, and got me back in shape within a few months.
For returning to exercise postpartum, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (6) recommends that you:
Aim to stay active for 20 to 30 minutes a day
Try simple exercises that help strengthen major muscle groups, including abdominal and back muscles
Gradually add moderate-intensity exercise
If you exercised vigorously before pregnancy or you are a competitive athlete, you can work up to vigorous-intensity activity
Remember, even 10 minutes of exercise benefits your body
Stop exercising if you feel pain
After a new mom gets approved to exercise by her doctor, she comes back to her training program! Every client has to be approached differently depending on the client’s fitness level before and during pregnancy as well as if there were any complications. Lauren takes a holistic approach to preparing postpartum clients for their return to the gym. Often, she is lucky enough to have trained the new mother through her pregnancy. In those cases, she has been in touch with her client throughout the process, even during time off of the gym, and has already built rapport and a return plan in place. Lauren has some clients who she first meets after the postpartum period (be it months or even years after) and says “It is important to consider that this client is both a healing birthing body and also an athlete. The immediate needs of her body as well as her former and future athletic goals should be considered when programming workouts postpartum."
As a personal trainer, Lauren asks several questions when designing a program for a postpartum client:
How much time does she have to work out?
What equipment does she have available at the gym or at home?
How much sleep is she getting?
What kind of exercise is enjoyable for her?
What type of fitness program is she or was she recently doing?
How does she feel about her nutrition practices?
Is she looking for referrals to other health partners?
In addition, there are some more specific postpartum considerations including:
Her birth experience, delivery, and other pregnancy experiences from previous children or birth trauma
Support system via partners/family/providers
Breastfeeding practices if applicable
If she's seen a pelvic floor physical therapist
Her stress levels, her anxiety or depression symptoms
Some of the more common medical and physical presentations we see include diastasis recti, cesarean section and scarring, other birth trauma, prolapse, pelvic pain or discomfort, incontinence or leaking, and also a reduction in overall activity levels since birth or even before. Lauren carefully considers these things when choosing exercises for the client and how quickly she will be able to progress in her program. Lauren also prefers working closely with a pelvic floor physical therapist if needed to collaborate on helping the client return to exercise safely and symptom free.
Exercise and Mental Health For Moms
Exercise can ease post-partum depression and connecting with other new mothers can make motherhood easier and more fulfilling, while being active at the same time. Classes for moms and babies are great because it not only connects you with other moms but it allows special time with your baby. FIT4Mom has several classes for moms at all stages of motherhood and the bonds made can last a lifetime. Cassie Clark says, "FIT4MOM offers fitness classes for moms in any stage of life, therefore you can greatly benefit physically by taking advantage of the different types of classes we offer. But, it's so much more than that! FIT4MOM provides the opportunity to make friends. With all the different classes offered, our moms are able to get to know one another and really rely on each other. This is so important for our social and emotional well-being!”
I cannot recommend gyms with child care enough because sometimes you need time for yourself and that is OK! What an amazing resource for moms who want to get back into shape and care for themselves. Gyms have a large variety of classes at various times throughout the day and week to choose from for every fitness level and interest. Gym child care allowed me to continue teaching and earn some money, get out of the house, set up a routine, and I knew my kids were being taken care of-plus I wasn’t far away which made breastfeeding so much easier. My kids grew up in the gym day care and made many friends there themselves. It is an amazing resource when you need time with adults-plus it is convenient and less expensive then hiring a babysitter. Even if your kids go to day care or are school-aged, the gym is filled with other moms who can allow connection for a healthy social outlet.
Fitness For Working Moms
Being a working mother has many challenges and finding time to exercise can be difficult but is so important for mental health. If you can, take a walk at lunch and keep a mat and some dumbbells near your desk to get in some sets throughout the day. When you can’t make it to the gym or the weather is bad when you are off of work, there are several virtual options that can make exercise accessible during nap time or before or after work. Setting up an expensive home gym isn’t necessary. A set of dumbbells, bands, and a mat are all you need for get a great work-out, improve your strength and endurance, and increase the feel good endorphins.
Finding a group of other moms to exercise with as your children grow is incredibly valuable for your mental health. Every stage of motherhood has challenges and rewards and having other moms to share fitness and connection with is essential.
I have been teaching an early morning class to working moms for several years, which we started outdoors during COVID.
I love these women! Each one has a career, are amazing moms and humans, and stay fit and strong. Jessica says, "I love the FIT Circuit class and the group of women I proudly call friends. No matter where you are in your parenting journey you're not alone. They're always supportive and there is always laughter! We like each other so much, we often go out for coffee after class". All of our children are school aged and virtual learning was an incredibly difficult time for working moms who had to focus on their jobs and kids at the same time. The class was an amazing outlet and we have grown close as fellow parents and friends. We have been seeing each other 2 times per week for almost 3 years now, offering each other support and advice for parenting challenges and cheering each other on for successes-all while getting stronger physically.
One participant says, “The FIT Carrboro moms group was an important outlet for me throughout the pandemic. I became physically stronger than I’ve ever been, but it also became a great source of community during a challenging time for all of us. The value of that social network became even more apparent when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and several classmates reached out to me to offer support, resources, and meals. Gayle has created something really special.”
Can’t seem to find any time to exercise? It often feels like there is no time for yourself as a working mom, but then I think about all of the time that I wait for my kids (the rest of you moms know what I am talking about). Waiting is what we do and is one thing I have learned as a mom, which is different from patience! Waiting during appointments and activities is constant as kids get older and is a good time to get some walking or running in instead of well, just waiting! While your child is playing a sport or at a music lesson, you could be moving and getting your own exercise time in. Even 10 minutes is better than no exercise so get it in when you can.
Being Active As A Family
Some mothers get involved as coaches for their children’s teams or activities as a way of incorporating fitness and the love of movement into their family. Sharon and her family began mountain biking frequently during the Covid lockdown and now is a coach for her children’s mountain biking team. Sharon is the Hype Squad Coordinator for Girls Riding Together (GRiT). Coaching for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) has been an amazing fitness experience for her and her kids. Sharon gets to exercise while cheering her children and their teammates on. Another program, Girls on the Run often need coaches and is a great thing to get involved in to stay active and run with your child, plus this program focuses on self-esteem and empowerment which is essential for young girls.
According to the Mayo Clinic (7), Youth sports offer additional avenues to more physical activity and improved mental health. Youth who participate in sports may enjoy psychosocial health benefits beyond the benefits they gain from other forms of leisure-time physical activity. Psychological health benefits include higher levels of perceived competence, confidence, and self-esteem — not to mention the benefits of team building, leadership, and resilience, which are important skills to apply on the field and throughout life. Additionally, team sports participation during adolescence may lead to better mental health outcomes in adulthood (e.g., less anxiety and depression) In addition to the physical and mental health benefits, sports can be just plain fun.
As your child ages, options for being physically active with your child are limitless. Running, hiking, cycling, climbing, and personal training with your child are all ways you can share fitness together. As an older mom, my children have allowed me to remember how to play again and being fit certainly helped me chase them around at the park when they were little. Many moms enjoy being active as a family or playing sports together like tennis, basketball, or golf.
As my kids are getting older, we have been doing more walking, hiking, biking, and camping together and my older daughter and I have been doing Yoga and weight lifting together weekly. Spending time being active as a family is so beneficial because you are sharing in something everyone enjoys while showing the value of fitness and movement to your children. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I have to make my young teens stay active, but having a fitness professional as a mom has taught them the importance of physical activity.
I have also found that planning active vacations is another way to stay fit as a family. On our most recent trip this past spring break to Key West, we walked, biked, kayaked, and paddle boarded together. We have also enjoyed hiking in the mountains, walking on the beach, and camping as a family. We have a vacation planned to Bryce Canyon and San Diego this summer and are planning a lot of hikes and activities. The best part is that these vacations will be remembered and cherished forever.
Personal Training With Children
At FIT Carrboro, we have trained many mothers and children together and we love it! Mothers with elementary school to college students and beyond have enjoyed challenging each other to be more fit. By training together, children will develop good habits early and learn proper form that will extend through their entire lives, including when they have kids of their own. Sharing sessions with children role model the importance of fitness and is more cost effective.
As a trainer, I love the bond created by seeing mothers and children exercising together. My client Paige has brought her high school and college daughters to train with her over the past two years. Paige values fitness, wellness, and self-care and wants to pass this down to her children. “I love working out with my daughters and watching them learn how to take care of their bodies with customized instruction. The sessions are fun, Gayle is engaged and easy to work with and always open to different workouts to keep things interesting for each of us. My girls and I love training and I love that my daughters are developing life-long habits of self-care!"
Fitness For Grandmothers
Grandmothers who exercise can live more fully, reduce the risk of disease, help with bone density and balance, and enjoy active time with grandchildren. According to the Center For Disease Control (8) regular exercise including strength training and cardiovascular conditioning:
Helps maintain the ability to live independently and reduces the risk of falling and fracturing bones
Reduces the risk of dying from coronary heart disease and of developing high blood pressure, colon cancer, and diabetes
Can help reduce blood pressure in some people with hypertension
Helps people with chronic, disabling conditions improve their stamina and muscle strength
Reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression and fosters improvements in mood and feelings of well-being
Helps maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints
Helps control joint swelling and pain associated with arthritis
Lexie and her mom, Suzan, have both gotten so much out of training with Gayle. Suzan’s increased strength and endurance has made being a grandmother more fulfilling. Suzan, who has a home in Colorado, moved close to her grandchildren to help her daughter who works full-time. Lexie’s husband, who is a doctor, often works long hours including overnight shifts. Suzan and Lexie initially started training together to see if it would work for them and have been committing to twice per week for the past 8 months. As a trainer, I love to see both of them get stronger and witness the fun competition. Suzan reports feeling fitter to keep up with her grandchildren and Lexie is excited to see how fit her mom has become.
Suzan can’t be happier. “My daughter and I have been weight training together with Gayle for the last eight months. My daughter has been my biggest champion and unrelenting challenger in my journey toward better health and strength. It’s been a rare opportunity for us to spend time together and encourage each other to push our limits. I am now able to race my 5yr old grandson, carry my toddler granddaughter and walk my crazy Doodle multiple times a day (but not all at the same time!). These twice a week trainings have become a necessary part of my life”.
My fitness journey as a mother will continue to evolve as my kids get older and if I ever become a grandmother, I plan to be in great shape to enjoy being active with them. Writing this blog has brought back so many memories of my own fitness experience before having kids, teaching while pregnant, and the many phases of being active both individually and as a family. I hope this blog helps you set fitness goals for you and your family through all phases of motherhood in the years ahead.