Liz Narins month 5 of pregnancy

Should You Push Yourself When Your Pregnant Body Lets You Down?

As a former fitness editor, I love a good workout. I got my personal training certification in my late twenties, and have taken so many boutique fitness classes (read: hundreds) in New York City that I could theoretically lead my own workouts. There is something about being a student in a class setting that pushes me in the best way possible. And there’s nothing like that next-day soreness to make me feel accomplished. 

Before I got pregnant, I’d been going to a local fitness studio known for high-intensity interval training at least five mornings a week for 45-minute pre-work sweat sessions. The classes were so challenging that my legs would all but buckle as I climbed the subway stairs to get to my office. But I can’t remember a time period when I felt stronger. 

The day after I found out I was pregnant, as I laced up my sneakers and strapped on the fanny pack I wore snuggly around my waist during my jog to the studio, I wondered how much longer the waistband would fit. Because this was my first pregnancy, I didn’t know how long I’d feel comfortable doing deadlifts, jump squats, burpees, and more. Sure enough, within weeks, I noticed that my stamina had considerably diminished. I’d pant for air after the warmup, and my heart rate would race in response to relatively little effort. 

While my pregnant friends confirmed that this was normal, my body’s response to the exercises I’d been practicing for months changed all too rapidly, in my opinion. In addition to running to and from the studio, the class moves I'd long worked to master just didn't feel right anymore.

Whenever I tried to push myself and keep up with others in the class, I felt like my body was letting me down.

What’s more, although I’d told the trainers at my studio that I was pregnant and learned that at least one of them was prenatal-certified, the trainee-to-trainer ratio was too high to get super personal attention. When transitioning between exercises, I felt nervous about hurting my baby or myself, since certain movements can lead to diastasis recti or abdominal separation. Whenever I tried to push myself and keep up with others in the class, I felt like my body was letting me down. 

Midway through my second trimester, I made the difficult decision to stand down and take prenatal maternity leave from the studio. Throughout my career in fitness, I’d always been competitive with myself, working toward more strength or speed or better form. Nevertheless, there I was, backing down from a challenge. I thought of pregnant women I’d seen running marathons or racing in the Olympic trials, and I felt like a failure. 

Not long after, I joined a local gym and met with a prenatal-certified trainer for one session in which she helped me establish a daily prenatal workout routine that would be safe for me to practice through the end of my third trimester. Her best advice was for me to focus on my back and shoulders during pregnancy since this would help keep my posture in check, ward off back pain, and keep me feeling—and looking—super strong.

While I used to love high-intensity interval training, I also took this opportunity to practice cardio on the elliptical, where I proudly watched all eight seasons of "Game of Thrones" in 30-minute intervals on my phone. 

As the months progressed, and my baby belly made it difficult to do certain moves comfortably, I resorted to a very slow 30-minutes on the elliptical. My strength training routine consisted of curl-ups, overhead presses, triceps extensions, and several sets on the pull-down machine. This daily practice made me feel safe and strong when everything else in my body felt out wack, and I hit the gym with regularity up until it closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic two weeks before my due date. 

This daily practice made me feel safe and strong when everything else in my body felt out wack, and I hit the gym with regularity.

Most trainers will tell you that you shouldn’t try to get more fit during pregnancy—just maintain the status quo. But if my experience is any indication, working toward a sensible goal that’s just for you, whether it’s showing up at the gym three times a week, improving your flexibility in prenatal yoga, or trekking an extra half mile on your daily walk, will help you maintain your mental health as your due date looms. On days when my mind was spinning around baby names and nursery colors, I found solace in the meditative swirl of the elliptical (and might have also kept a running list of "Game of Thrones" character names that could be contenders in my search!).

No matter what shape you were in before you found out you were pregnant, there’s great value in establishing a reasonable fitness routine before your baby arrives. Whether that means a daily walk around the block or a weekly prenatal Pilates videos, listening to your body when something just doesn’t feel right is the best way to prevent injuries and put yourself in the driver’s seat. 

Listening to your body when something just doesn’t feel right is the best way to prevent injuries and put yourself in the driver’s seat.

Now when I think back to my prenatal routine, I miss the time I spent on myself with no need for childcare (and no worries about COVID-19). The commitment I made to myself to show up, even when I hadn’t slept well, or felt achy or bloated, was exactly the self-care I needed to bring my body back to equilibrium—no more, and no less. 

During my fourth trimester, when I was anxious to get back into my pre-pregnancy shape, I was glad I’d put the time in over the past nine months—particularly since gyms remained closed until around the time that my son turned one.

Now that I’m working from home with a toddler underfoot and a pandemic that won't seem to pass, I haven’t rejoined my fitness studio or gym, and have admittedly struggled to establish a regular workout routine. But every time I get an unencumbered hour to myself for movement, I think back to the days when I could do anything in the early morning hours and have no regrets about how I spent them.

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