Last week, I went to a prenatal yoga class. The instructor glided into the room, sat cross-legged on her mat, took a deep breath, smiled, and said, “Okay, let’s start with introductions.” She went leisurely around the room and each round-bellied mom said her name, how far along she was, and listed all the physical symptoms she was feeling that week, while the rest of the class nodded empathetically.
I groaned (to myself, hopefully). I love yoga, but I prefer the kind where sweat makes your mat slippery, and you feel as though your arms are going to give out, not the kind where the clock ticks away while you sit in lotus position and bond with your neighbor. Just because we’re pregnant doesn’t mean we’re fragile and emotional. I wanted a workout, not a group therapy session.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been frustrated over being treated like a delicate flower while I’m pregnant. I remember when I was carrying my three-year-old son, my husband would catch me hauling heavy boxes onto high shelves in one of my frenzied nesting sprees and make me put my feet up instead. It seemed that friends and family were most comfortable with me on the couch eating ice cream, where I, in turn, felt trapped like a beached whale.
Clinical advice is on my side, here. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that expecting moms exercise on most, if not all, days of the week, saying that it will reduce aches and pains, help you sleep, and may ward off gestational diabetes.
But even more intriguing is that current research suggests exercise is not just good for mom, it’s good for her baby too. For example, it’s been shown that when mom does aerobic exercise, her fetus’ heart rate increases, indicating that the baby isn’t just floating along passively but is basically getting a mini-work out as well. And that workout may indeed lead to better heart health for the baby in the long run: Newborns of moms who exercise moderately at least three times a week were recently shown to have indicators of better heart health a month after birth (the sample of moms is still being followed to see if the effect holds up over time). These findings are part of our growing understanding about how mom’s environment and lifestyle choices are constantly sending signals to her fetus to prepare it for life on the outside.
Of course, if you’re not already an active person, pregnancy isn’t exactly the time to take up long distance running or spinning. I asked my OB-GYN for her thoughts on the exercise question, and she recited the rule of thumb I’ve heard many times before: Anything you were doing before you got pregnant (except, say, downhill skiing or ice hockey), you’re fine to continue. I’m a dancer who also takes yoga – that’s what I did through my first pregnancy and plan to do through this one as well. We’re commonly told not to do all kinds of things as pregnant women: Don’t be upside down, twist, jump, lie on your back. But when I pressed by doctor about it she seemed to think that, aside from being upside down or flat on my back for a long time, none of that was a problem. “Listen to your body, drink water, don’t go to the point of exhaustion,” was her bottom line. One of my closest friends – a dancer who recently had her third baby – had a similar experience. Even though friends, her doorman, and strangers alike would tsk-tsk her for teaching class with an enormous belly, her doctor’s advice was, “Dance til the end, as long as you’re feeling good.”
So I’m determined with this pregnancy to keep challenging myself physically as long as I feel good. In fact, I notice that the more I exercise, the less exhaustion and lower back pain I feel. Of course, I don’t push myself until I’m drenched in sweat or out of breath, and I always have plenty of water (I added that last part for my husband).
But underneath, my feelings about being treated delicately while pregnant aren’t that simple. I kind of like that this is a special time when my physical and mental state are paramount. When I’m in the mood for it, it’s fun to have people hold the door, offer their chair, or tell me to take it easy. And I get to say things like, “I can’t do dishes. I’m lying down” or “I need to eat a Cobb salad. Now.” I’ll probably steer clear of prenatal yoga until my belly hangs precariously close to the floor in plank position in my regular class. But in a way, all the precautions and advice help to remind me that this is a unique and exceptional time – and since this is my second child and life is so busy, that’s actually a much-needed reminder. I’ll make sure to soak up my fair share of special treatment while I can.