More Women Are Working Out to Prepare for Pregnancy

But is it really worth it to get into "baby-bearing shape"? Experts weigh in.

Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images.

These days, fitness trends range from cutting-edge and research-backed to wacky (like that whole beer yoga thing, for example). The latest one to crop up: prenatal fitness. This doesn't just mean staying in shape while you're pregnant, but actually getting into "baby-bearing shape," if you will. While the idea of training specifically to make pregnancy and delivery easier might sound a little ~strange~ to some, it's definitely growing in popularity, with dedicated studios popping up, like Fit Pregnancy Club (FPC) in NYC and The Bloom Method in Boulder, CO. We talked to experts to find out what the real benefits are to this kind of training and why they think it's catching on.

Why is prenatal fitness a thing?

When you talk to a prenatal fitness instructor, the idea of getting in shape for pregnancy suddenly starts to make a whole lot of sense. "I tell my clients to think of pregnancy like a running a marathon," says Joanie Johnson, cofounder of FPC, which caters both to women who are pregnant and who are not yet pregnant. "You wouldn't run a marathon without training, so why would you go into the most physically taxing event of your life without conditioning your mind and body for it first?" She's got a point.

Even physicians are starting to see that their patients are more interested in training specifically for and during pregnancy. "This trend is catching on and I've noticed it in my own practice," says Fares Diarbakerli, M.D., an ob-gyn in the New York/New Jersey area. And it seems like the benefits are pretty real. "I've noticed my more active patients are happier and enjoy their pregnancies more," says Dr. Diarbakerli.

The idea of feeling great during pregnancy is also especially appealing to women who have already been pregnant and want an improved experience the second time. "My motivation getting fit before pregnancy was the experience of my first pregnancy: I was ill the entire time, couldn't function without a steady stream of carbs, and was so fatigued I could barely lift my head off my desk at work," says Molly, a 36-year-old based in Park City, UT. She's now working out at Orangetheory several times per week as she prepares to become pregnant with baby number two. "My goal is to establish a super-solid base and then to continue my Orangetheory workouts throughout the pregnancy, with the hope that it cuts down on morning sickness, weight gain, and fatigue."

What is prenatal training?

When you think of traditional pregnancy fitness, you probably imagine gentle, slow-paced classes. That's not really what pre-pregnancy prenatal fitness entails, though. Instead, it's much more strategic and surprisingly, high-intensity. "At FPC, our workouts are based on corrective exercise and functional movement," says Johnson. "Every move has a purpose that translates into making you a more functional mover for pregnancy and in everyday life. We incorporate weights, cardio, LIIT (low-impact interval training), as well as techniques of yoga, Pilates, and dance training in order to create a total-body workout that's safe, fun, and produces results."

And as you can probably guess, there's a pretty heavy emphasis on pelvic floor exercises, which has a whole host of benefits, but for pregnant women can help bring awareness and strength to the muscles used during delivery. "The pelvic floor was a huge, big mystery to me and I wanted to learn more about it as soon as possible," says Savannah, a 32-year-old based in Los Angeles, who trained with the Bloom Method before, during, and after pregnancy. "I had been experiencing incontinence for years, something other women had told me was normal, especially in the CrossFit community." The founder of the method actually suggested Savannah see a pelvic floor specialist, which made a huge difference in her core strength. "My pregnancy was one of the easiest I had ever heard of," she says. "While my workouts continued to decrease in intensity as my belly grew, my core was getting stronger. This was so empowering for me!"

What are the benefits of prenatal exercise?

It's important to note that pregnancy is different for everyone-and your second pregnancy could still be very different from your first. But there are still quite a few doctor-approved advantages to getting fit before you get pregnant. Here, experts share the top benefits.

It could make it easier to get pregnant.

If you know anyone who has been through fertility struggles, you probably know that they're asked to keep a very close check on their weight. That's because while the way weight affects your fertility is very individual, "when a woman is obese, hormonal changes might occur in her body, and those changes might decrease her chances of conception," says Nita Landry, M.D., an ob-gyn and cohost of The Doctors. That means that by committing to fitness before trying to get pregnant, women may be able to increase their chances of getting pregnant.

It could make pregnancy easier.

"Getting in shape before pregnancy really helps make pregnancy easier for many reasons," says Monica Lee, M.D., an ob-gyn based in Los Angeles and a Mommy MD Guide. "It can help improve cardio fitness so that the body can tolerate the extra weight, anemia, and decreased oxygenation that occurs when pregnant." What's more, being in shape can decrease some of the other health risks that come along with pregnancy, like diabetes and high blood pressure, she says.

Plus, you've probably heard the advice that while it's great to work out while pregnant, you shouldn't start a fitness routine while you're pregnant if you didn't work out before. While there are no guarantees, "women who were regular exercisers before pregnancy and who have uncomplicated, healthy pregnancies, should be able to engage in high-intensity exercise regimens during pregnancy," says Dr. Landry. So by being well-conditioned beforehand, you increase your chances of being able to continue working out with a baby on board.

It could make delivery smoother.

"Having strong abs and a fit cardiovascular system might make labor and delivery easier," says Dr. Landry. Although she points out that even with the strongest abs in the world, a vaginal delivery is still tough. Along with that, there's the fact that exercising regularly during pregnancy can decrease your odds of needing an emergency C-section.

It could help you bounce back faster.

One of the reasons many women want to be able to work out during pregnancy is to control their weight. "While you do want to gain an appropriate amount of weight during your pregnancy, women who exercise are likely to gain less weight-while still staying within the healthy weight-gain range," says Dr. Landry. This is very individual to each woman, but not going over your doctor's weight-gain recommendation makes it easier to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight after delivery, she says.

What's more, getting back to exercise after delivery could be a speedier process if you were in shape beforehand. Savannah says that thanks to her prenatal workout regimen, she was cleared for exercise just three weeks after a natural delivery. Of course, some women will need longer than others to get back to exercise-and that's totally okay. (And just FYI, it's normal to still look pregnant after giving birth.)

So, in short, there's really no downside to getting in shape before trying to get pregnant, and after conceiving, and there are actually a lot of benefits to doing so. While getting into baby-bearing shape doesn't necessarily ensure that you'll have an easier pregnancy, delivery, or recovery, it certainly doesn't hurt.

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