Pre- and post-natal exercises for fit mamas

Okay, so it isn't exactly a great time to start running a marathon when you're pregnant, but most women do benefit tremendously from exercising throughout their pregnancies, and also from post-natal workouts.

For one, it helps you look and feel better (and I'm guessing that no expecting mum would object to that). It also helps boost your sense of self-control and energy levels, which is pivotal, especially at a time when you're wondering if this strange, slowly ballooning body can possibly be yours.

More importantly, appropriate pre-natal exercises can also help increase flexibility and the core strength your body requires to support your growing belly. When done correctly, exercises focused on strengthening and toning the muscles in your back, butt and thighs can improve your posture as well as relieve backaches that most expecting mums will experience.

Growing bigger

Debbra Lee, owner of Fit for 2, a fitness centre for mothers and babies, aims to help women do just that. Lee, who has been conducting fitness classes for pregnant women, as well as post-natal classes for mums, says women should continue exercising throughout their pregnancy because it helps them cope with their changing body.

"When you're pregnant, your boobs get bigger, and of course, your tummy gets bigger all the way to the front. As a result, the back is strained, and the most common complaint among pregnant mums is back pain."

Such discomforts, Lee says, can be addressed through proper exercises, especially those that are focused on strengthening the core.

"We focus on strengthening the chest area to carry the bigger boobs, working the upper back to pull the shoulders back so you'll be more stable, and of course, working the pelvic floors (with exercises such as Kegel), which is the most important exercise when you're pregnant," she notes.

Pregnant women who perform exercises aimed at strengthening the pelvic floor muscles often find they have an easier birth. Strengthening these muscles during pregnancy also help promote the ability to control your muscles during labour and delivery.

More notably, toning all these muscles will help minimise two common pregnancy problems: bladder leaks and haemorrhoids. Hence, Kegel exercises are also recommended after pregnancy to promote perineal healing and regain bladder control.

Another area that pregnant women should pay attention to is their ability to breathe properly, says Lee.

"Breathing capacity shrinks when you're pregnant, especially during the late pregnancy stages, so we do a lot of chest-oxygen exercises, which allows the mother to breathe properly to support the development of her baby."

Ultimately, the goal of pre-natal exercises is to help prepare you and your body for birth. Strong muscles and a fit heart can greatly ease labour and delivery. Gaining control over your breathing can also help you manage pain.

Fulfilling the body's needs

Fulfilling the body's needs

Not knowing what to expect, this very un-pregnant writer attended a Pregnancy Stretch and Tone class, conducted by Lee, who is also a certified group fitness instructor. Needless to say, I stuck out like an oddity (the irony) as Lee took a group of pregnant ladies through a series of stretching exercises that target the chest, upper back, core and pelvic floors, aimed at strengthening the core to help support a growing belly.

The slow and low-intensity exercise was no doubt tailored to fit the demands of a pregnant woman, especially in helping prevent the wear and tear on the joints, which becomes loosened during pregnancy due to hormonal changes.

"When you're pregnant, the ovaries secrete a hormone called relaxin, and it's there so your hips open and your baby can come out. But relaxin doesn't just hit the hips. It hits the knees, ankles and everything else, so you become really 'soft', which is why high-intensity exercises such as running are not recommended while you're pregnant."

Also consider issues such as keeping your body temperature at a neutral level when you're working out.

"Pregnant women have to be careful of overheating as it can be dangerous for the baby. When you get too hot, the baby gets too hot," Lee points out.

It is also vital to keep your heart rate at a relatively neutral level to ensure an adequate supply of flood flow and nutrients to the developing foetus. More importantly, you need to breathe properly, or your baby isn't going to get enough oxygen.

"Overheating and not breathing properly can compromise the development of your child, especially in the first 12 weeks," Lee cautions.

Slow and steady

The class at Fit for 2 was small, and Lee seems to know everyone by name. If anything, I thought it felt like a sorority for expecting mums to share their experiences with each other.

The instructor says she does encourage expecting mums to work out through the course of their pregnancies. "Yes, you can continue all the way through. I have ladies who are 40 weeks pregnant and they still come for class."

Other classes offered at the centre include Pregnancy Yoga, Pregnancy Pilates and Belly Dancing.

But for all its benefits, make sure you consult your doctor before you continue your old exercise routine or kickstart a new one. Prudence is never a bad thing. Also, as common sense would have it, listen to your body.

"Every pregnant mum is different, every baby is different. If you're tired, have a rest; if you've had enough, have a rest," says Lee.

I'm not going to lie. I did feel a little depressed as I struggled to stay put in the pre-natal class. I am not a mother and I've never been pregnant, and I can't even begin to imagine what being pregnant must feel like. But just knowing that I won't be able to hit the gym the fast-and-furious way if I ever do get pregnant, is enough to get me down.

And what of watching the lean physique I've worked so hard for swell into an amorphous puff? And of post-pregnancy woes? Surely the arrival of a child isn't a period for optimum fitness (unless I can afford a maid, or five).

Apparently, Lee shared some of my sentiments. The instructor, who specialises in pregnancy and post-natal care, says her nine-year-old daughter Jordan was the reason why Fit for 2 was conceptualised, because she couldn't find a place where she could go and exercise when she was with child.

"Exercise is part of my life, which is why I did the fitness course in pregnancy, because I couldn't imagine not exercising, and I needed to know what was safe and what was not safe."

Fit for 2, which opened in 2004, also offers classes for mothers and babies. "The whole idea is to provide an avenue where you can bring your kid to exercise, so mum feels great, doesn't feel guilty, gets a bit of a workout, sometimes a lot, depending on the kids, and also gets a chance to interact with other mums."

Post-pregnancy rehabilitation is equally important, Lee stresses. "Relaxin can stay in your system for up to three to six months after pregnancy, so it's not a good idea to jump right back into high-intensity exercises right after delivery."

Getting back into shape

While celebrities like Nicole Kidman and Beyonce may have snapped back in shape faster than a rubber band after their delivery, Lee says a new mum could risk injuring her joints by engaging in high-octane workouts. Instead, she advises them to go slow with exercises such as working on a fitball, which again targets the core muscles that are essential for stability and good posture.

Oh, one more thing that I'm sure most of you are already familiar with - exercising during the course of your pregnancy can help you regain your pre-pregnancy body more quickly. Also, assuming that you exercised before becoming pregnant, you'll gain less fat during your pregnancy if you continue to exercise.

But don't expect, or try to lose weight by exercising while you're pregnant. The goal here is to maintain your fitness level and not attempt to look like Victoria Beckham.

Back into shape

Still, the all-important question looms - is it possible to get back to what you were after you've given birth? Smiling, Lee says: "Yes. If you take care of yourself during pregnancy, you'll get back to a pretty nice level where you'll feel comfortable with yourself."

As though sensing the doubt in my eyes, she adds: "Maybe you won't be exactly the same, but priorities sometimes change when you become a mum. Maybe having a flat tummy wouldn't matter as much anymore. After all, we're not a slimming centre and we're not about getting skinny. We're about wellness, and enjoying motherhood, and living well."

The adjoining Fit for 2 café bustled with life as I emerged from the pre-natal class. "We serve only healthy food," says Lee, pointing out some items such as chicken and spinach on the menu. "Everything here is homemade because I don't believe in giving your kids processed food.

"We also offer advice to expecting and new mums on how to eat properly. When mums eat properly, their children will eat properly."

As I struggled not to fall off the fitball (I get zero points for flexibility) with a group of new mamas in Lee's Mum and Child Fitball class afterwards, I found myself waddling in newfound admiration for mothers everywhere.

Not only do they have to deal with the discomfort and restraints of pregnancy, they are also inevitably leaving behind an old life for a new and largely unfamiliar one.

Above all, they are in the works of creating another human being, and if that's not beautiful, I don't know what is.

I do hope to have children of my own someday. Hopefully, a boy and a girl (because I'm Chinese and clichéd like that) by 30, but till then, excuse me while I make a dash for my next spinning class!

Fiona Ho is a cardio junkie who just can't seem to get enough of spinning classes. Save her a seat next time, please!