I imagine that the title alone evoked curiosity in expecting mothers from a varied background when it comes to approach to fitness.
“I’m already athletic and confident in my fitness regime, but hey, never hurts to get new inspiration!”
“Oh good, I’ve been looking for someone to tell me exactly what to do in terms of fitness while pregnant - I want to be active, but am not sure what I should be doing.”
“Do I really have to exercise? I’m more tired than ever and didn’t exercise regularly prior to pregnancy, so why bother starting now?”
As a birth doula, I regularly encounter all of the above responses and more. Here’s the great news: the tips that I’m about to share with you are things that anyone CAN do and everyone SHOULD do in order to prepare your body for birth. This won’t be your typical list of cardio and resistance exercises, but it is vital to enabling your body to birth more easily.
Think of preparing for birth as preparing for a marathon. It’s called labor for a reason! Would you show up for your first marathon without training? Of course not! Similarly, the way that you train matters as much as training at all.
Although women have been birthing babies for thousands of years, our current society is incredibly sedentary, which has direct implications on our ability to birth easily. Ab muscles that we need to be strong are weak, muscles and ligaments that need to be relaxed are tight, and all of this impacts our baby’s specific position in the womb as well as our body’s ability to coordinate efficiently and effectively during birth.
Did you know that the average first time mother could be in labor 17-20 hours including both early and active stages of labor? Who wouldn’t want to shorten that time frame?
According to Spinning Babies, the three most important principles to help you labor more easily are balance, movement, and gravity. The following exercises intentionally incorporate these principles.
Yup, it’s really that simple. Daily walking will help keep your cardio in shape, loosen stiff muscles, and engage your full body. The pelvic movement that occurs helps keep your lower back strong and walking keeps psoas muscles stretched and flexible too. Aim for 30 minutes daily, but if you can’t do it all at once, break it up into 2 shorter sessions.
Speaking of the psoas muscles, if they are tight, you will be uncomfortable and your baby won’t descend easily. The simplest way to stretch it is to lie on your back with your feet on a chair or couch, so that your knees are at 90 degree angles, thighs vertical, legs horizontal. Relax and breathe deeply for 5 minutes, then slowly return to a sitting position. For a deeper look at ways to perform psoas release, check out this Spinning Babies link.
These combine gravity, movement, and balance, so you get a lot of bang for your buck here. Position yourself on all fours, with knees and hands evenly balanced, legs straight behind you. Imagine pressing your belly button to your spine as you curve your back and move your hips/pelvis forward. Hold for a moment and release your breath as you return your back to a neutral position. This is similar to calf/cow in yoga, but without the sway back. Start at 20 reps and build your way up each week. For maximum effect, perform 1 set at least 3 times per day.
Forward Leaning Inversion
It’s especially important that you check with your care provider before trying this position, as there are a few conditions that are contraindications to using it. This makes use of balance to aid the ligaments that support the lower uterine segment in relaxing. Kneel on a sturdy surface such as a couch or large chair. Carefully walk your way down to your arms, so that your butt is high in the air and your head is resting on your forearms. Maintain the position only as long as you are comfortable and then slowly come back to an upright position. For safety, have someone in the house who can spot you while you do this one! Alternatively, you can have your partner support you with a blanket or sheet under your baby bump and around your hips while you lean forward on the floor.
Hip Circles on Exercise Ball
You’ll need an exercise ball for this one - make sure it’s inflated enough so that there’s an even line from your hips to knees when you sit. Simply sit with a wide leg stance and move your hips in a wide 360 degree circle - feel like you’re ready to win a hula hooping contest! Make sure you feel your butt going all the way behind you at one point of the circle and tucking underneath you as you come back around. This will help a LOT with hip flexibility as well as core strength. Start with 20 per side at least twice per day.
The famous midwife Ina May is known for saying “If you squat 300 times a day, you will give birth very easily.” You may not reach that high number, but any squatting is beneficial! Squatting helps your low back, core, creates a “hammock” space for your uterus, which relaxes supporting muscles and ligaments, and prepares the perineum for birth! It also shortens the birth canal when squatting in labor, so being comfortable with squatting by labor is a major plus!
For a proper squat, be sure to have knees wider than your hips, toes pointing forward, and keep your feet flat on the ground. Have something nearby you can grab if you lose your balance or use the wall for support against your back - no falling! Be sure to stick your butt behind you and push through your legs on the way back up. Hold each squat for 20-30 seconds and breathe deeply. Try 3-5 per set. Check out this video for a good squat demo.
Belly sifting may be new to many readers, but it feels oh so good! Do this right before bed and you will fall into a dream sleep. All you need is a small sheet, thin blanket, or shawl and a partner to assist you. Kneel on all fours like you are about to do pelvic tilts. Have your partner place the blanket completely around the baby bump and hold the excess in their hands. They will gently lift up, so that you feel your belly supported by the tension of the blanket. Your partner will move their arms in a gentle sifting motion as you relax. Try this for 2-5 minutes, or as long as your partner’s arms will hold up. ;) When finished, your partner should stop sifting and THEN gently release support pressure through the blanket.
Back to that “we sit too much” thought...if you’re going to sit, sit well. When sitting in a chair, make sure you’re actually sitting on your sitz bones, you know, the bony part of your butt, and not your tail bone. This puts your uterus/baby in a better position and uses more abdominal support. If you sit a lot for work, consider bringing an exercise ball to work and sitting on that instead of a chair - you virtually can’t sit wrong on that and it will help with hip flexibility too! Chilling at home for the evening or on the floor all day with littles? Use taylor sitting - sort of like criss cross applesauce, but without crossing your legs. Just let your hips and knees fall open and feet touch so that your legs make a diamond shape, which keeps your hips in a nice open position. From that position, you could also stick one leg out in front of you for an asymmetrical position - both are good postural positions and keep your hips and pelvis from getting too tight.
All of the activities above are recommended for daily use. You’ll get the most benefit from pelvic tilts, hip circles, and squats if you do them multiple times a day. Want even more? Check out Spinning Babies’ post on Daily Essentials. Or better yet, hire a doula! Doulas are there to support you through pregnancy, birth, and postpartum and many are trained in pregnancy fitness, including Spinning Babies, and can guide you through these exercises and much more.
Drink, Drink, Drink!
Finally, remember to hydrate! You need to be drinking MUCH more during pregnancy than you did prior to pregnancy. That whole 8 glasses a day thing? Think of that as a bare minimum guide to how much you should drink each day. Check with your care provider regarding your own health, but a better guideline would be 75-100 oz daily. For best hydration, the majority of this should be water, natural fruit juices (not concentrates) or herbal tea. Adding lemon juice to your water helps your body absorb it and stay hydrated longer, or you could try coconut water for additional electrolytes. Get creative with fruit infusions! Bonus: staying hydrated often helps reduce Braxton Hicks and means you’ll be less likely to need an IV drip for fluids at the hospital
How will you start incorporating prenatal fitness into your daily routine? Have a prenatal workout you’re already using? We’d love to hear!
**note: the advice in this post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical care provider. Always check with your own doctor or midwife before incorporating new exercises, particularly the forward leaning inversion discussed above.**
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