Pregnancy can bring on a variety of emotions (and not just from all the hormones flooding a mom-to-be’s changing body): excitement, fear, anticipation and anxiety, to name a few. For first-time expectant moms, it also can be a time of endless questions. Two questions that come up a lot: “How much should I exercise, and how should I be exercising?”
While every body and every pregnancy is different, we asked former 24 Hour Fitness employee and first-time expectant mother Zen Nguyen a few questions about her journey through pregnancy and fitness.
Nguyen currently lives in Australia with her partner, and she was a personal trainer, performance enhancement specialist and corrective exercise specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
24Life: What is the biggest misconception or myth regarding pregnancy and working out?
Zen Nguyen: I think the biggest misconception is that women are fragile when we are pregnant and that we must not exercise. Rest is absolutely important and I rest when needed, but I also have been extremely active and continue to exercise regularly throughout my pregnancy.
Since becoming pregnant, I haven’t felt fragile or limited by what my body can do. I’ve felt fatigued at times, especially during the first trimester, but now that I’m in my third trimester, exercise actually helps with picking my energy levels back up. I think this is contrary to what many people expect because I’ve received plenty of well-intentioned advice from family, friends and even complete strangers to slow down or decrease the intensity of my workouts. After watching me do overhead squats, a stranger actually told me that I should replace exercise with sitting quietly and meditating during pregnancy. What they fail to take into account is the level of fitness I had when I became pregnant. I’ve been able to continue exercising regularly and safely at higher intensities because my body was already conditioned for that when I became pregnant. That’s what works for me.
24Life: How did being fit and active before pregnancy prepare your body for pregnancy?
ZN: I went into pregnancy with a solid foundation of strength and endurance. Without this foundation, my body would have to deal with the stress of starting a new fitness routine on top of all the changes that already come with pregnancy. Starting with this foundation has enabled me to continue exercising, which has helped me manage stress, increase my energy levels and minimize back pain.
24Life: What’s your approach to staying active and having a healthy pregnancy?
ZN: I’ve taken the same approach to staying active during pregnancy as I have throughout my entire experience with fitness, for myself as well as when I trained clients: Establish goals and underlying motivation, create a plan and make adjustments as needed along the way.
My goals changed significantly when I found out I was pregnant. Short term, my goals are to have the healthiest pregnancy I can, carry my baby to term and prepare for the stress of labor. I know there are many factors that are out of my control that can impact whether or not I will carry to term and what my labor experience will be, but I believe exercise will minimize the risks for the factors I can control.
My long-term goal is to be a great role model for my son and for him to grow up in a home where fitness is a priority and part of our daily life. I want this to be something we share as a family. Once I get out of a routine, it’s challenging for me to get back into it. By maintaining my exercise habits throughout my pregnancy, I’m setting myself up to recover more quickly and continue this lifestyle postpartum.
Another important way I stay active is ensuring my baby and I get the nutrients we need, so I’ve been extremely mindful of what I’ve been eating throughout my pregnancy. I cook at home more now, instead of going out to eat, and incorporate a greater variety of fruits, vegetables and lean meats in my diet. I also take a prenatal and calcium supplement every day and have increased my water intake. Letting myself get dehydrated is a surefire way to zap my energy and bring on a migraine headache, so I’ve learned that I need to drink a lot more water than I did before I was pregnant. I still get fatigued, especially now that I’m in my third trimester, but I feel the difference and have more energy to exercise when I give my body the fuel it needs.
24Life: What are your go-to workouts?
ZN: I walk a lot and love to do full-body circuits. I take Hank, my Australian bulldog, for an hourlong walk five or six days per week. My workouts are focused on overall movement, endurance and core strength, so I usually do a higher rep range, like 15 to 20 repetitions at a lower weight. I use a variety of equipment like TRX, barbells, dumbbells, bands and cable equipment, and I also do body-weight exercises to keep my workouts fresh.
I’ve also had minimal back pain as I’ve been doing exercises to keep my core strong. The core includes all the muscles that work to stabilize the spine and hips. Maintaining strength and endurance is also preparing me for the stress of labor, which I know will require a great deal of strength and endurance. Maintaining this level of fitness gives me the confidence that I can handle the pain and stress of labor.
24Life: What are some workouts/moves you’ve had to stop doing or significantly modify because of pregnancy?
ZN: After my first trimester, I stopped doing exercises where I’m lying flat on my back, as that can interfere with circulation to the baby. I also stopped running during my second trimester. I physically could still do it, and many of my friends were able to run during their pregnancy up until the week they delivered, but I stopped because of the discomfort of the pressure on my bladder—one of the more annoying symptoms I’ve experienced during pregnancy!
I still do most of the movements I did before pregnancy, but I modify the intensity and speed. For example, with burpees, I only get down to push-up position instead of laying my chest and stomach flat on the floor. If I’m feeling tired, I’ll step my feet back and forward to get down to push-up position and then back up to standing instead of jumping my feet backward and forward. As my body has changed, I’ve continued to focus on lifting and moving with proper form, since my weight is now distributed differently and the pregnancy hormones have made my joints a lot looser. When modifying exercises, I think the most important thing I can do is to listen to my body. If it doesn’t feel right or if I feel like I can’t maintain proper form, I don’t do it.
24Life: What is the most important thing you’ve learned about your body during pregnancy—especially in regards to fitness and health?
ZN: I’ve learned just how resilient a woman’s body is, and I’ve developed a whole new level of appreciation for mothers and what they go through during pregnancy. I think this goes back to what I’ve experienced to be one of the most common misconceptions about pregnancy and fitness. Our bodies are much stronger and more adaptable than we give it credit for.
I’ve been using an app that gives me updates on my baby’s development and how my body changes week over week. It’s incredible! We literally create a whole new organ to support the little life that is growing inside of us. Our bodies are built to do this all while we continue to go about our daily lives, which for me includes exercise. Talk about multitasking! I know so many women who focused on what they couldn’t do when they were pregnant. I’d rather focus on and marvel at the miracle of what my body is capable of and what I physically CAN do while pregnant. This mindset has been important for me because it’s helped me approach pregnancy and the upcoming labor with a level of confidence I wouldn’t have otherwise had.
24Life: How are you preparing for postpartum fitness?
ZN: I’ve prepared for postpartum recovery and fitness by maintaining my exercise habits throughout pregnancy. I anticipate an easier and faster recovery because I’ve maintained my strength and endurance. I’m going to listen to my body, as I have throughout my entire pregnancy. I plan to take my baby (and dog!) for walks as soon as my body feels ready to go, and I’ll incorporate weight training and higher-intensity exercises when I feel ready to do so. I’ve also signed up for a half marathon later this year so that I have another goal to work toward after the baby comes.
24Life: What’s the best shower gift for a fit mom-to-be?
ZN: I’m most excited to use the baby carrier we received. It fits a newborn and will adjust as the baby grows, and it also accommodates many carry positions. I’m an avid hiker and love to get out on the trail! I’ve hiked throughout my pregnancy, so my little guy has been on plenty of hikes with me. I’m excited to share this experience with him when he’s outside of the womb and will get to breathe the fresh air and see the spectacular views!
Photo and video credit: Courtesy of Zen Nguyen