Being pregnant does not give you a license to ignore your fitness. Even though your belly (and other parts of your body) are growing and you feel like you will never have a fit physique again, exercise can make your mama-body stronger, your pregnancy and delivery easier and your postpartum recovery faster. Pilates is the perfect exercise modality to follow before, during and after your pregnancy, says Sarah Picot, author of Pilates and Pregnancy and the Pilates for You DVD series.
“Three areas to focus on while pregnant are back strength, pelvic floor strength and posture,” Picot explains. Your pregnant body is prone to strains and pulls and the increase in weight puts tremendous pressure on your back, shoulders and legs. “As your baby grows, the weight strain on your back and shoulders can ruin posture,” she adds.
In addition, relaxin (the pregnancy hormone that promotes the loosening of your joints) and the changes in your body to accommodate the growth of your baby, weakens the muscles and joints in the pelvic area. These muscles are key in delivery and, if they are kept strong throughout the pregnancy, can make recovery that much easier.
The type of Pilates that Picot teaches and recommends is a system of gentle movements performed in a safe range of motion for a mom-to-be. Though gentle, these exercises are surprisingly effective in strengthening the abdominal region. Strong core muscles will adequately support your internal organs and back as well as make your pregnancy more comfortable.
Before you embark on any exercise regimen, check with your doctor. “Age, fitness level, health and other pregnancy factors will effect your fitness routine,” warns Picot. Even though Picot highly recommends daily exercise, she also cautions the pregnant women who are avid exercisers. “Maintaining a very high fitness level, for example marathon running, may result in blood flow being diverted from the fetus and the possibility of lower birthweight babies,” she says. Instead of high-intensity training, Picot recommends light cardio, such as swimming or walking, and strength and flexibility exercises like Pilates.
Picot's top five Pilates exercises for the mom-to-be:
Start on your hands and knees, keeping your belly pulled in toward your spine and the back of your neck long and in line with your spine. Reach forward with your right arm and extend your left leg back so that they are parallel with the floor. Hold for a few breaths then switch sides. Repeat 3 times.
Holding 3 to 5 pound weights, place your back against a wall and stand with your feet hip-width apart and 8 to 10 inches from the wall. Bend your knees, keeping your back and head in contact with the wall as you slide down. Stop when your thighs are parallel to the floor – pretend you are sitting in a chair. Breathe deep while inflating your ribs but avoid breathing that lifts your shoulders, keep your shoulder blades back and down. Do 4 bicep curls followed by 4 overhead presses. Slide your back up the wall, rest and repeat sequence 2 more times.
3) KNEE FOLDS ON AN INCLINE*
Lay with your back propped up on a pillow wedge or stack of pillows, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift your right foot from the floor, knee bent, until your calf is parallel with the floor. Slowly return to start position without shifting the weight in your hips. Switch legs and repeat 4 times each leg.
(Note: Do kegels while performing this exercise to help strengthen the pelvic floor and the muscles used to push during delivery as well as ward off incontinence. While you are lifting your knee, tighten up the muscles you would use to keep from urinating – without tightening your legs and buttocks – and relax the muscles while you lower your leg to start position.)
4) THE HUNDRED*
Lie on your back with your knees bent and calves parallel to the floor. Reach your arms forward and float them about an inch above the floor. Curl your head forward, lifting your shoulders slightly and keeping your belly button pulled in toward your spine. Keep your arms straight and pump your arms up and down as if you were hitting a pillow. While you are pumping, inhale through your nose for 5 counts followed by an exhale through your mouth for 5 counts. Lower your head, shoulders and arms to the floor. Repeat 9 more times.
(Note: If this is too challenging, put your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent. If this is not challenging enough, straighten your legs to the ceiling or at a 45-degree angle at the hip. However, whatever position you choose, you must be able to keep your belly button pulled in and keep your back flat on the floor (no arching). If you are in your second trimester, place pillows under your head, neck and back to keep your upper body at an incline.)
5) SPINE STRETCH AGAINST A WALL
Sit on the floor with your back against a wall, legs straight out in front for you about hip-width. Straighten your arms out in front of you at shoulder-height and parallel to the floor. Pay attention to how your spine feels against the wall – there will be a small space behind your lower back and your neck. Inhale to lift your ribs (not your shoulders) up and away from your hips. Exhale and peel your back off the wall, starting with your head, as you reach your arms forward. Imagine your head being pulled to the floor between your thighs as each vertebrae rolls away from the wall. Inhale again then exhale as you roll back up the wall to start position, one vertebrae at a time. Your head will be the last to return. Repeat 4 more times.
Picot recommends doing these exercises at least five times per week. However, she says, “Exercise your abs all day long by always imagining you that you are in a bikini.” She adds, “You will be surprised how effective it is to simply keep your abs pulled in and engaged all day. They will look better and you will feel better.” Even if you are well into your pregnancy, imagining your belly button being pulled back to your spine will improve your posture and your core strength.
*As your pregnancy progresses, you will need to modify exercises to accommodate the change in blood flow in your body. Picot suggests using pillows or a wedge to put the upper body at an incline during the second trimester and not lie on your back at all during your third trimester.
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