By Bonnie Berk
By far, the most important area of your body to strengthen and tone before, during, and after pregnancy is your torso. Without strong abdominal and back muscles, you risk injuring your back and developing poor posture throughout the rest of your pregnancy. Bad habits are hard to break!
Muscles of the sides are also important in helping to support the growing uterus and preventing additional stress on your body. Exercising on a fitness ball is a fun way to strengthen your torso without putting strain on the pelvis and knees, which become vulnerable during pregnancy.
Just by sitting on the fitness ball, you engage all of the muscles that support the growing uterus. In addition to the exercises included in this chapter, try to sit on the ball as much as you can throughout the day to strengthen your core. If you feel any back discomfort, that means your muscles are tired and need to rest. Many people use fitness balls to sit at their desk or to watch television. Be creative!
When purchasing a fitness ball, find one that fits your height and be sure to read the instructions on how to inflate and store it properly. As you sit on the fitness ball, make sure your knees are in line with your hips and your knees are over your ankles (figure 7.1). Your feet should be about hip-width apart.
The following exercises can be practiced separately or easily integrated into your exercise regimen.
Sit comfortably on the fitness ball. Inhale and allow the abdomen to expand. As you exhale, contract your abdominal muscles to force the breath out. Imagine pulling your belly button toward your spine. Try to perform 20 abdominal contractions. Rest and do 20 more.
For a belly breathing variation that works the quadriceps too, place the fitness ball against a sturdy wall at the level of your lower back. With your back to the ball, lengthen through the torso and lean against the ball with your knees bent and hip-width apart. Perform belly breathing, pulling your belly button to your back, while keeping the ball between your back and the wall. Try to perform this exercise 20 times. Eventually try to build to 2 sets of 20 with at least 2 minutes of rest in between sets. Afterwards, perform the quadriceps stretch (page 85) to release tension on the thighs.
This is also a good time to practice Kegel exercises. Practicing Kegel exercises will help you strengthen and tone pelvic floor muscles, improve comfort during the later stages of pregnancy, prevent or alleviate urinary incontinence, speed up the healing process after an episiotomy, and improve sexual satisfaction.
Take a breath. While exhaling, gradually (to the count of 5) tighten the muscles around your vaginal opening as if to pull it up toward the inside of your belly button. Be sure to relax your shoulders, neck, and jaw. Only your pelvic floor muscles are tight. Inhale and relax. Perform at least 20 Kegels a day.
Question: I have exercised for years and now when I exercise, even a little bit, I get out of breath. Is that normal?
Answer: The brain regulates the oxygen.carbon dioxide balance. When you have too much carbon dioxide, the brain tells the respiratory center to breathe faster to get rid of it so more oxygen can be taken in and delivered to your baby. This gives you a feeling of being out of breath and is most common during aerobic type exercises such as walking and biking, but can happen during any exercise session. The hormones in pregnancy lower the carbon dioxide threshold in the brain, so as soon as a moderate amount builds up, you need to take quick, shallow breaths. Listen to your body. If you are feeling out of breath, chances are your baby is not getting a good supply of oxygen. When you exercise, you should be able to talk, but you shouldn't be able to sing!
Excerpted from Motherwell Maternity Fitness Plan
About the author: Bonnie Berk, RN, is the founder of Motherwell and a childbirth education specialist with more than 25 years of experience working in the obstetrical and women's health fields. She is a pioneer in the field of pre- and postnatal fitness.