Jill Wade, a mother of two and a certified personal trainer, compares having a baby to the ultimate workout.
"You use your strength, endurance and breathing techniques. You have to stay focused and work with a goal in mind, and you have to push yourself to the limit."
Mrs. Wade says exercise sessions during her pregnancies gave her the strength and endurance she needed for delivery.
Medical experts agree that exercise can help relieve some of pregnancy's unpleasant side effects, including swelling, insomnia, backache, constipation and shortness of breath.
Barring any obstetrical or other medical complications, moderate exercise is safe during pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Risk factors that preclude exercise include pregnancy-induced hypertension, an incompetent cervix, ruptured membranes before term, and bleeding.
With her doctor's approval, Mrs. Wade worked out five times a week during both of her pregnancies.
She lifted weights and did cardiovascular exercise on the exercise bike or stair climber.
"I monitored my heart rate to keep it under 140 (beats per minute) and decreased my lower-body workout near the end," she says, so she wouldn't put too much stress on her body or the baby.
Mrs. Wade, however, admits to days she didn't feel like exercising. "You have to listen to your body," she advises, "especially if you're fatigued. If you wake up and don't feel like working out, take the day off."
Mrs. Wade gained about 25 pounds with each pregnancy. "I increased my daily calories but watched my fat."
After the birth of her second child, Mrs. Wade began exercising after two weeks. Within a month she was back to her prepregnancy weight.
Hope Long, mother of a 2-month-old daughter, works out regularly and has gotten to within five pounds of her normal weight.
In addition to teaching dance classes the nine months she was pregnant, she continued her cardiovascular conditioning and weight training program.
Before she began exercising, her doctor advised her to keep her heart rate under 140 and to modify her workout to eliminate strain on her body.
At her four-week postpartum checkup, Mrs. Long's doctor gave her the go-ahead to begin exercising again. (She headed for the gym that very day.)
Mrs. Wade says new mothers who want to get back into shape don't have to go to a fitness center or exercise class to get started.
"Most everyone can walk, even if they are not otherwise physically active," she says. "Daily walking is a great way to get started."
Exercise videos also are an affordable way to exercise, and they enable new mothers to exercise at odd hours that suit the baby's schedule. A variety of videos are available that deal with exercise during pregnancy.
Mrs. Wade stresses, however, that the best time to start getting in shape is before pregnancy. "Pregnancy is not the time to begin an exercise program and nutrition program."
Recent studies show that new mothers who exercise benefit from better sleep and more energy, and nursing mothers need not worry that milk production and quality will be affected.
However, Mrs. Wade recommends that mothers wait an hour after exercise to nurse their babies because of the lactic acid produced during a workout.
Donna Cottingham writes about fitness at the Evansville Courier in Indiana.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists offers these recommendations for exercise during pregnancy and after the baby is born:
Regular exercise (three or more times per week) is preferable to intermittent activity.
Avoid exercising on your back after the first trimester because it affects the flow of blood to the heart.
Stop exercising if you feel fatigued, and never exercise to the point of exhaustion.
Avoid exercise that could result in the loss of balance, such as some high-impact aerobics or step classes. Pregnancy creates a shift in the physical center of gravity, which affects balance.
Drink plenty of water and other fluids to replace the fluid lost through perspiration.
Avoid getting overheated.
After pregnancy, resume your exercise routine gradually.
For more information, contact the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists at (202) 484-3321.