Life Mothers & Babies

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Keep moving, baby! Pros and cons of pre-natal exercise

Gillian Fitzpatrick delves speaks to professionals and women about the benefits and the potential risks of exercising while pregnant.

Gillian Fitzpatrick

Published 01/09/2014 | 00:00

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healthy pregnant woman doing yoga in nature
"Pregnancy is a time for keeping fit and healthy, but it's not the time for pushing yourself to the limit," said Siobhan Byrne.
Many women wonder if they should continue to exercise during pregnancy
Many women wonder if they should continue to exercise during pregnancy
Staying active while pregnant is definitely 'in'

Last month, heiress Holly Branson announced that she would not be taking part in the high-profile Strive Challenge, which involves running, hiking, rowing and climbing to the Alps from London.

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Aiming to raise almost €1m for Big Change, as co-founder of the charity, health-conscious Holly had very much been expected to take part.

However, the daughter of billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson took to the Virgin website to offer reassurance that she had a valid reason for withdrawing. She may not be nursing illness or injury, but the 32 year old is pregnant with twins - first babies for Holly and her husband of two-and-a-half years, Freddie Andrewes.

Although Holly has previously completed a marathon and has also spoken of her love of tennis and cycling, she decided that pregnancy was not the time to challenge herself physically.

It's a decision Siobhan Byrne, owner of BodyByrne Fitness and PUMA Ireland ambassador, supports. She herself gave birth to her daughter, Regan, a little over a year ago. "I was in the gym the day before I went into labour; but my body is used to training," she says. "After all, this is what I do for a living!"

And she adds some words of caution: "It is important that expectant women tweak their regular workouts - take it down a notch - and, of course, get your doctor's advice.

"As a trainer, I'd absolutely support Holly's decision to opt out of the Strive Challenge: sure, pregnancy is a time for keeping fit and healthy, but it's not the time for pushing yourself to the limit."

But while high-intensity endurance events may be out - staying active while pregnant is definitely in, a trend a host of well-known mothers-to-be, are lately embracing.

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Last week, US reality TV star Nicole Polizzi, better known as Snooki, posted a picture on her Instagram account. Now eight-months pregnant, it showed the 26-year-old lifting weighs - her baby-bump proudly on display in a tight black vest.

Singer Kelly Rowland and George Clooney's ex Stacy Keibler also uploaded photos of themselves on Instagram working out with their bumps.

Michelle Heaton (35) has gone one step further. A qualified personal trainer, Michelle has a special interest in pre- and post-pregnancy exercise. She gave birth to her son Aaron earlier this year - a second baby for her and her Dubliner husband Hugh Hanley and has now released a workout DVD tailor-made for women in all stages of pregnancy.

She says the featured exercises address the "changing needs of expectant mums, their bodies and their developing babies". At the time of the DVD's launch, Michelle said: "I know how hard it is to try and stay active during pregnancy so I wanted to share what I learnt and what helped me with others."

The TV presenter and former pop-star has also insisted it is important for mums-to-be to perform certain exercises in order to help with labour.

And away from the world of celebrity, that's advice that Alice Duffy, who lives in Clonskeagh in Dublin with her husband, Eamon, and their 9-month old son, Finn, very much embraced.

Last year, she began a weekly yoga class when she was 14 weeks pregnant - on the recommendation of her GP. "I've suffered with back-pain previously and I was conscious that that might be something that would flare up during my pregnancy. Antenatal yoga was recommended to me by my family doctor; although I've always been quite fit, I'd never done yoga before - and I was really keen to give it a go."

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Alice (32) who also walked for an hour each day, explains: "I just wanted to do something healthy for me and my body - physically, so much changes during pregnancy, and most of it you don't have any control over. At least by staying active and strengthening my core, I felt I was managing better a few of those changes."

And her yoga instructor was also able to tackle the normal, everyday aches and pains of pregnancy: "She really knew her stuff; I'd flag up a niggling discomfort and she'd immediately know exactly the right move to tackle it and stretch it out."

As highlighted by Michelle Heaton, Alice reckons she reaped the benefits, not only while pregnant but also, she says, actually during the labour, and afterwards while recovering.

Meanwhile, research released earlier this year by UCD and Holles Street Hospital show that almost half of all Irish women gain too much weight during their pregnancies. The study highlighted that excess weight gain can harm infant growth - subsequently making the child fatter and less healthy in later life.

Fionnuala McAuliffe, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Holles Street who led the study, concluded that pregnant women in this country need to know how much weight is too much.

Alice says: "It's traditionally seen as a time to really chill out and indulge in whatever food you want - but now for people of my generation, we know that eating right and staying active is really important."

This urge to stay fit and healthy during pregnancy has even prompted leading personal trainer Hanna Nytomt, herself 24 weeks pregnant, to develop a six-week bootcamp course specifically for mothers-to-be. It begins later this month in south Dublin - and most of the places have already been snapped up.

"I've had dozens of expectant mothers attend my ShapeUp classes in the past - so with me having my third baby now, it's the perfect time to kick off a six-week pregnancy programme," Hanna explains. "The classes will involve, naturally enough, exercise and working out with a bump, but there'll also be time to discuss diet and nutrition - and I'm hoping mums-to-be will be swapping tips and making it a bit of a social occasion as well."

Even for those you can't make a weekly class, Hanna says that doing something is always better than doing nothing. "Lots of women are concerned about back pain - but back pain is only made worse by sitting on the couch watching TV. Movement will help keep your body flexible and prepare you for labour."

Most of Hanna's current crop of dedicated clients would agree that already passed the half-way point, her stomach remains enviably flat.

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"I feel so good," the 30-year-old shares. "No one believes me when I tell them how far along I am in my pregnancy. It's definitely down to how active I am - I've trained throughout all my pregnancies and this one is no different."

And although someone who works out for a living can be expected to be in tip-top shape, Hanna, who lives in the capital with her husband Stephen (38) and two young children, says that no one needs specialist equipment or a high-level of fitness to exercise.

"I love water aerobics, and of course walking is brilliant because it doesn't cost anything and is ideal for pretty much everyone. Even for a woman who is overweight or has never been physically active before, it's an activity which is very manageable and safe throughout pregnancy."

Hanna says she felt comfortable right up until the latter weeks of her previous pregnancies: Axel is now six-and-a-half, with Alice (5) arriving 18 months later.

"I'm young and fit, but I stopped working out a little after the eight-month mark with both of them, probably because at that stage like a lot of women I felt very tired and rest was the only thing on my mind!"

Finally, though Hanna is still demonstrating the exercises in her classes now, she won't be rushing back to the gym blindly.

"Exercise is vital before and during, but I tell every woman - no matter how in shape they are - that afterwards they do need to give themselves at least six weeks recovery time before working out again. Your body just needs that time-out following child birth."

Michelle Heaton Active Pregnancy is available on DVD now from Amazon and michelleheatonfitness.com

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