When it comes to a physically demanding activity, most people think about running a marathon or power lifting.
But for women, giving birth is the single most athletic event of their life, and they need to train for it, according to the Michigan Health Lab.
In Nebraska and other states, fitness professionals are empowering women to train their bodies throughout pregnancy, despite some mothers’ worries that prenatal exercise can be harmful to the fetus.
“You can work out the day you find out you’re pregnant up until the day you give birth,” said Dr. Elizabeth Mollard, registered midwife and assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
People wrongly assume that women are fragile during pregnancy, Mollard said, but they are still very capable of movement. And because labor is physically demanding, women should try to be in the best shape possible, she said.
“The more you do, the better your body works and the better your pregnancy will be,” she said.
“Pregnancy is the most powerful thing a woman could do.”Aubrie Geedey, fitness influencer
Stacy Orsborn, a fitness professional from Lincoln, didn’t exercise during her first two pregnancies but did during her third. Exercising through her third pregnancy provided a completely different labor experience.
“After the first two, I had felt like I just got hit by a truck. But after my third I felt great,” she said. “It was easier because my body was more prepared for birth.”
There weren’t many fitness trainers or resources encouraging her to keep moving during pregnancy, Orsborn said, so she and business partner Stasi Grenfell opened Victress gym in Lincoln to provide a safe, all-female exercise place for soon-to-be mothers.
Victress focuses on holistic female wellness by coaching before and during pregnancy and partnering with mental health professionals to provide support through postpartum. Victress is one of the only gyms that offers prenatal fitness classes in the area, but they are set to open an Omaha location in April, Orsborn said.
Many pregnant women are looking for the confidence and support to exercise. Doctors and fitness experts should encourage women to work out during pregnancy more than ever, Orsborn said.
“I really just want to empower them to move,” she said.
Beyond an easier and quicker labor, the benefits of prenatal exercise are many. It can create better cardiovascular health, better sleep, better blood-oxygen levels for both the mother and the fetus, better reactions to insulin and reduce the chance of hypertension and diabetes, according to Mollard.
Prenatal exercise is also key in building the mother’s confidence, both in herself and her body, said Dr. Lindsey Mathews Cantu, founder and CEO of BirthFit, an online exercise program centered around prenatal exercise. Pregnant women in particular need the confidence to speak out and ask questions about their pregnancy, she said.
“The more empowered a woman is, the more often she will make decisions that align with her core values,” she said.
Aubrie Geedey, a fitness influencer from South Carolina who has been lifting for seven years, also saw clear benefits from her prenatal exercise and said she would recommend working out while pregnant. Like Orsborn, she wants to empower women and inform them about the benefits of prenatal exercise.
“Pregnancy is the most powerful thing a woman could do, and exercising through it can be beneficial,” she said.
During her first pregnancy two years ago, Geedey started posting videos of her exercises on TikTok. Generally, she has received positive feedback, especially from other pregnant women who were looking for exercise advice. However, some people were shocked, and some said they were worried for her health.
“Mostly it was older men who would approach me in the gym and say, ‘You’d better be careful,’” she said.
Some of Geedey’s followers were concerned that her exercise could cause a miscarriage, but they were misinformed about the risks of working out while pregnant, she said.
“If you’re going to have a miscarriage, it’s going to happen because you didn’t have a viable pregnancy in the first place,” Geedey said.
There is no evidence that prenatal exercise will lead to miscarriages, according to Tommy’s, a charity organization dedicated to researching the causes of pregnancy complications. However, physicians are still known to attribute the cause of a miscarriage to the mother’s exercise, Orsborn said.
“If something goes wrong, they have a mom to blame,” she said.
Exercise will not cause preterm births, miscarriages or endanger a healthy fetus in any way, according to Mollard. The biggest risk while working out pregnant is falling onto the belly. Orsborn and Mollard both recommend against biking, running, high intensity jumping or any exercise where balance may be out of control.
Another worry that Orsborn finds in pregnant women is the fear of diastasis recti, a common condition where the abdominal muscles stretch to create a bulge in the middle of the belly. Diastasis recti is something that will happen in a lot of pregnancies, with or without exercise, Mollard said.
A pregnant body is prepared to protect the fetus over the mother, Orsborn said, so the mother’s nutrients and energy will be depleted before the fetus is ever affected negatively. This means that exhaustion will likely stop a workout before the point when the intensity could be dangerous.
Overall, the mother’s body is the strongest it will likely be in her life, according to Mathews Cantu.
“You’re probably the most optimal version of yourself when pregnant,” she said.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has conducted research and has overwhelming evidence that exercise is beneficial to both the mother and the fetus. Yet still, women like Geedey see people worry about their prenatal exercise.
“In America we view pregnancy as this fragile state,” Mathews Cantu said.
Americans’ misconceptions about pregnancy — that it is to be feared or is almost unnatural — make some women feel incapable, dependent and stuck for nine months, Mollard said.
“There’s a lot in pregnancy and birth that takes power away from women,” she said.
Geedey’s gynecologist cleared her to lift weights, but not all doctors have that same mindset. Some physicians have prescribed women to bed rest and tell them to avoid movement, despite it having negative effects, Mollard said.
Mathews Cantu takes issue with that advice.
“There are very few times when bed rest or the avoidance of exercise is necessary,” she said.
Women should seek the advice of a physician and a fitness professional before working out, Geedey and Orsborn said.
Because every pregnancy is different, prenatal exercise will be different for every woman, Mathews Cantu said.
“There is no one size fits all for pregnancy.”