You don't have to run a marathon at 38 weeks to stay on pace for a fast post-baby recovery. A doctor-approved fitness program during pregnancy can fight stress and contribute to your overall well-being — and your baby's.
And guys: Consider the fact that men gain weight during a pregnancy, too — an average of 14 pounds. Get involved early and battle the sympathy bulge.
"One of the most important things you can do for you and the health of your baby is stay fit," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Sandy Kimmer, assistant professor of family medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md.
Doctors recommend pregnant women get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most, if not all, days to help relieve aches and pains, improve mood, sleep and energy, prevent pregnancy-related diabetes and promote an easier birth and faster recovery.
Elizabeth Hill was an Army officer at Fort Riley, Kan., when she found out she was expecting. Already an avid runner, Hill's doctor cleared her to continue unit PT and to keep running — "about 30 miles a week through the second trimester and down to 20 miles a week for the third trimester," Hill said.
How hard you should exercise depends on pre-pregnancy fitness and your doctor's recommendation. Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Pamela Williams tells patients to monitor perceived exertion using the Borg Scale of Perceived Effort. You can also monitor exertion by heart rate or ensuring you can comfortably keep up a conversation.
"Since my baby and I were healthy, my doctor said it was OK to run as long as I could carry on a conversation and wasn't breathing too hard," Hill said.
While she became fatigued more quickly as her pregnancy progressed, she wanted to continue pulling full duty as long her doctor gave the clearance.
Benefits extend to baby
New science continues to back the relatively new notion that exercise during pregnancy can be a good thing.
Most recently, it was shown that pregnant women who performed strength training three to five times a week lowered their risk of back pain, premature labor, gestational diabetes and cesarean deliveries — and experienced shortened recovery times, according to an article in October's Strength and Conditioning Journal.
Benefits seem to extend to the baby. The article points out previous studies that showed women who performed weight-bearing exercise regularly during pregnancy had longer babies with more lean body mass than those born to moms who didn't; and that by age 5, children of women who performed vigorous exercise throughout their pregnancies were more advanced neurodevelopmentally, attributed to the fact that exercise raises blood volume and therefore nutrient delivery to the baby.
And now evidence is mounting that men may benefit from better PT during a pregnancy, too. A 2009 British study by Onepoll found that men gained an average of 14 pounds during their partner's pregnancy.
Set your own limits
Doctors commonly recommend low-impact exercises for pregnant women, but running may also be safe. Always be sure you can comfortably keep a conversation going throughout your workout.
Walking. Ramp up the effort by picking up the pace.
Swimming. It's not only good exercise but also a welcome relief from gravity.
Running. Pregnancy is not the time to start a running routine, but for women who are already runners, doctors say many can keep running as long as they are prepared to dial back the effort as necessary.
Cycling. Only practical up to a point; don't go off-road or ride where the pavement is wet. A better bet: spinning.
Weight training. The goal should be "to maintain a reasonable level of fitness rather than optimize it," wrote study author Brad Schoenfeld of Lehman College's Exercise Science Department in the strength training article. "Static, endurance-based core exercises such as the plank, bird dog and side bridge positions are ideal for the pregnant woman because they have been shown to promote back health while minimizing stress to the spine."
Pregnancy fitness classes. Yoga, pilates, low-impact aerobics and more are regularly offered specifically for moms-to-be.
Doctors' guidelines by fitness level:
Not fit: For expectant moms who ramp up fitness levels just twice a year or less for PT tests, the Navy's Kimmer suggests establishing a regular walking routine. In an article on the school's website, Indiana University Center for Sports Medicine's Dr. John Turner recommends low-intensity, nonweight-bearing exercise such as swimming or stationary cycling. Moderate walking is OK: Aim for 20 to 30 minutes at a comfortable pace.
Moderately fit: The key to continuing your exercise program safely is to remain vigilant about monitoring your exertion. The Air Force's Williams suggests using the Borg Scale of Perceived Effort, rating your effort from 6 for no exertion to 20 for maximum exertion. Williams said a fit woman should be able to work out in the 12- to 14-point "somewhat hard" range for much of her pregnancy.
Very fit: Conventional wisdom through the mid-1980s suggested pregnant women should walk only a mile a day, broken into sessions, so marathoning moms-to-be may encounter some resistance from the previous generation. But as long as your doctor says it's OK, take heart: Turner points to a study in which 42 national- and international-level cyclists, marathoners and biathletes performing five hours of "high intensity" training a day showed no adverse effects; as well as the case of a 33-year-old elite marathoner who continued to safely run 66 miles a week up to three days before delivering twins.
What dads can do
Now men, we know you're no longer the aloof dads of yore — you're going to give the parent thing your all.
But maybe it hasn't fully hit home that the effort you invest before birth can reap dividends after.
Don't think of it in mushy terms — banish thoughts of "being there" and "providing support."
Think of it as pulling your weight. Being a leader. Making the team stronger.
Some ways to get started:
• Implement an a.m./p.m. walking routine — that you actually participate in.
• Get involved in menu planning, and learn how to cook a few quick, healthy meals.
• Perfect the back massage. The better she feels, the more likely she is to exercise.
OFFduty editor firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Amanda Miller contributed to this report.