Women’s Health & Fitness Programs
Many important health issues for girls and women involve matters of reproductive
health, childbearing, fertility and aging. Research informs us that an active, healthy
lifestyle provides a number of benefits throughout a woman’s life span:
reduced discomforts from pregnancy, labor, birth, recovery & menopause
reduced risk of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy and premature birth
potentially shorter active labor and reduced risk of cesarean delivery
more rapid return to joyful activities, less excess weight following birth
mother-infant interaction, leading to infant psychomotor enhancement
reduced rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes
reduction of some cancers, osteoporosis, falls and loss of muscle mass
improved social support, networking and stress management skills
greater belief in one’s ability to be strong and capable (self-efficacy)
In the generations since birth moved from the home to the hospital setting, it has become less and less frequent that women in developed nations see birth first hand and accept it as a natural part of life prior to their own first birth experience. The “epidemic” of fear surrounding birth may well be partly a result of this phenomenon. In a recent post published in Midwives magazine, a publication of the UK’s Royal College of Midwives, DTP director Ann Cowlin wrote a blog entitled ‘Exercise and Body Trust in Birth.’ The post addresses the confidence in one’s body that accompanies training specific exercise and how this applies to pregnant women and their preparation for birth. Here is the link to the blog post: http://community.rcm.org.uk/blogs/exercise-and-body-trust-birth
As I became involved in the birthing field, one of the nurse-midwives with whom I was acquainted introduced me to Jung’s quotation: “There is no birth of consciousness without pain.” (Alternately, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”) It struck a deep chord in me.
When I first saw the saying, “There is no birth of consciousness without pain,” intertwined with a drawing of a woman literally giving birth, the truth of the image seemed obvious to me. It become hard-wired into my underlying assumptions about giving birth. The process itself combines intense noxious sensations with mid brain emotional input into what neural science calls pain. For years, this realization has driven what and how I teach: Being fit and educated in body/mind are the tools of enlightenment and self-empowerment.
…And This Is Now
A little while ago I came across a NY Times article “Profiting From Pain.” While the article concerns the huge increase in the legitimate opioid business – products, sales, hospitalizations, legal expenses and workplace cost – it restarted my thinking about a topic fermenting in my brain between That Was Then And This Is Now: The sense of entitlement to a pain-free existence. The idea that pain free is better than painful. And the selling of this idea for profit.
Could it be that human fear of pain is being used to generate financial profit? (the opium-is-the-opiate-of-the-masses model). Perhaps once the notion of palliative care reached a certain level of acceptance for the dying within the medical community, it began to spill over into other human conditions (the slippery-slope model). Or, perhaps we don’t want transparency at all (the denial model).
In the last few days, NPR has raised the question of whether the high cesarean birth rate is tied to the payment for procedure rather than outcome model? The recovery from cesarean is more painful than the recovery from vaginal birth, has adverse side-effects for mother and baby, and was originally designed for use only for the 15% +/- of real complications that arise in normal birth. So, how is it being sold to 35% of women in the U.S,? At one point, there was a serious discussion within the medical community that if women were afraid of the pain of birth and wanted a cesarean, a care provider should do one. No discussion of why it seems painful or how to deal with pain.
The Affordable Care Act aims to improve some of the cost issues in medical care by shifting the payment incentive away from procedures and on to outcome assessment. As a result, the cesarean rate and even such seemingly innocuous procedures as fetal monitoring are coming under scrutiny. If we truly want to do a service to the mothers-to-be in the ACA transition period and beyond, I think we must discuss the question of birth and pain.
I can think of many questions that fall under this topic…Why do we call the intense phenomenon of birth “painful”? How do our genetics, behavior, training and thought-processes affect our experience of pain? What about the health care culture – has it focused on relieving pain at the expense of what we gain from working with pain short of trauma or imminent death? How do we prepare women for working with sensation without automatically labeling it pain? Is the “empowerment” often attributed to giving birth what is learned by going through the center of the “there is no birth of consciousness without pain” experience? These questions are just a start.
Let me address the childbirth educators and pregnancy exercise instructors. This is our present challenge. In my work, I feel the necessity to make all pain management strategies understandable to my clients. I find that most of the women I see in classes must deal first with self-discovery before they can assess their commitment to the view of birth they carry in their minds. The images of birth we lay out for them to consider need to include an understanding that you cannot escape the work of birth. Being present – mindfulness – can be scary and intense but it is the medium by which our consciousness expands. Cardiovascular fitness and strength are the source of our endurance and power.
The challenges to safe motherhood vary depending where in the world you live. In some areas the challenge may be to get adequate nutrition or clean water; in other areas, it may be to prevent infection; and in still other locations it may be trying to avoid pregnancy before your body is ready or getting access to prenatal care. In the U.S., it may mean avoiding being sedentary and making poor food choices, or having to deal with the high technology environment of medical birth that can sabotage the innate physiological process of labor and birth.
Birth begins the bonding or unique love between mother and child.
The biology of birth is a complex series of cause-effect processes…baby’s brain releases chemical signals to the mother and the placenta begins to manifest the maternal immune system’s rejection of the fetus.
To help the ball get rolling, relaxation (the trophotropic response) helps promote the release of oxytocin. With the help of gravity, the head presses on the cervix, amplifying the uterine contractions. After an ultra-distance aerobic endurance test, the cervix opens enough to let the baby move into the vagina and the mother’s discomfort moves from sharp cramping into the bony structure as she transitions to the strength test of pushing. She transitions. Relaxation modulates into an ergotropic – adrenal – response to gather her power.
Pushing is an interesting term…more masculine, I think, than the one I prefer: Releasing. Releasing or letting go of the baby. It’s a catharsis. In this portion of the labor another set of important processes help the baby clear its lungs of amniotic fluid, stimulate its adrenal system and challenge its immune system, as the contractions drive the baby downward. The mother’s deep transverse abdominal muscles – if strong enough – squeeze the uterus like a tube of tooth paste, to aid this expulsion. In the meantime, the labor is helping set up the mother to fall in love and produce milk. When the baby emerges and moves onto the mother’s chest, s/he smells and tastes the mother, recognizing her mother’s flavor and setting up the potential for bonding.
Any way you slice it, there are two parts to safe motherhood. One is a safe pregnancy…healthy nutrition, physical fitness, safe water, infection prevention, support and a safe environment. The other is a safe labor. In a safe labor, there is both an environment that promotes the natural process of labor and the means necessary for medical assistance when needed. Women die at an alarming rate from pregnancy or birth-related problems. Despite some progress made in recent years, women continue to die every minute as a result of being pregnant or giving birth.
What keeps us from having a better record on motherhood is often lack of care in the developing world and too much intervention in the U.S.. They are two sides of a coin. Mothers’ experience and health needs are not on equal footing with other cultural values. In places where basic prenatal care or family planning are low priorities, at-risk women are vulnerable to the physical stresses of pregnancy and birth. In the U.S., machine-measured data is paramount, even if it produces high rates of false positives, unnecessary interventions or counterproductive procedures. We are learning that obesity and sedentary lifestyles have detrimental effects, but fewer pregnant women than their non-pregnant counterparts exercise.
Despite the money spent to support the technological model of pregnancy and birth in the U.S., there are parts of the world with lower rates of maternal deaths – especially Scandinavia, Northern Europe and parts of the Mediterranean and Middle East (Greece, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Italy and Croatia). In fact, in the U.S., maternal deaths are on the rise.
It’s a tricky business. Clearly Western medicine has a lot to offer the developing world when there are medical concerns. On the other hand, importing the U.S. model could create more problems than it solves. Instead, the micro-solutions now being developed in many locations will be observed and evidence collected by organizations such as the White Ribbon Alliance and UNICEF.
There is an effective international midwives model adopted by JHPIEGO, the Johns Hopkins NGO working toward improved birthing outcomes. It assesses the local power structure, social connections, potential for trained birth assistants, and location of available transportation to create a network so that locals will know when a labor is in trouble and who can get the woman to the nearest hospital.
In the U.S., there are in-hospital birth centers that allow low-risk mothers the opportunity to labor and birth in a setting designed to encourage the innate processes. Women are beginning to vote with their feet…staying home for birth. Women are going abroad to give birth. At the same time, women are coming to this country to give birth, believing it is safer than where they are. There are several ways these scenes could play out.
But, I’ll wager, improving outcomes will involve compromise: Watchfulness and support in most births, plus better ways to assess danger and provide technology. No matter where you live in the world, the solution may be essentially the same.
The Second Stage of Birth is different from the First Stage. The actual expulsion of the baby requires a change in energy axis. During dilation (first stage), oxytocin is most easily released from the pituitary gland during relaxation (see previous post), but during transition, a change occurs so that the ergotropic response takes over and adrenaline is key in helping oxytocin to spike.
What does this mean as far as preparation is concerned? While it is important to learn to relax or maintain positions such as one does in yoga, the ability to sprint, or turn on an aggressive action at the end, is critical. You need good aerobic conditioning. Begin exercise with easy breathing and movement, then practice aerobic endurance and power moves at the end of your workout! Finish up with cool down and stretching.
The contractions themselves change. They remain intense for a longer stretch, but the time between them increases. Pushing involves not only the uterus contracting, but the pressure exerted by the transverse abdominal (TrA) muscle. Similar to squeezing a tube of toothpaste, TrA pressure helps press the baby toward the exit – yes, that is the vaginal opening. If the laboring mother is not able to apply adequate pressure, labor assistants sometimes apply pressure manually to the top of the uterus or – if need be – forceps or a vacuum extraction may be necessary.
How can a mom best prepare so that the TrA can provide the needed pressure? Strength training the TrA! Like any other motion requiring power strength, this muscle can be strengthened to do its job! Here’s how:
picture 1: sit upright, inhale
picture 2: exhale, compress abdomen and curl down
Return to upright and repeat 8 times. Rest. Repeat 8 more times.
What if something goes awry? Cesarean, or surgical birth is an alternative. Major complications before labor include a placenta previa, infection or undeliverable breech position. During labor, the most common problem is dystocia – stalled progress through dilation (first stage) or pushing (second stage). In the pushing stage, head to large for pelvis is the most common difficulty.
What happens next? If the birth is natural, you will feel a tremendous euphoria. Bring the baby right up onto your chest for skin-to-skin contact. If you have had medications, your response may be slightly blunted, but you will definitely be overwhelmed by the emotions of birth.
Third Stage is expulsion of the placenta, which can no long remain connected to the shrinking uterus. When it detaches, the nurses or midwives will ask you to push and !plop! out it comes. It can be interesting to see what has nourished your baby for so long!
MORE?!! You didn’t think that was it? Only a few comments on evidence as to WHY moving around, burning calories, being strong and learning to relax while pregnant is beneficial? No, of course not. You know there is more to it, like WHAT movement is safe and effective during pregnancy?
So, what is safe? Well, first, unless you have a very few conditions that your health care provider considers unsafe, every woman – fit, currently sedentary, young or a little older – can exercise safely in pregnancy. How much of what kind depends on your fitness level and exercise history. Get medical screening first.
If you are fit, you can do vigorous exercise
If you are fit, you just need to learn how to modify some movements to accommodate your biomechanics. As your body changes, stress on the joints and tissues means a little less jumping or ballistic motion will be more comfortable and safer. If you are fit, you can continue with vigorous exercise and it will be of benefit to you and your baby.
If you are not so fit or are sedentary, find a certified pre/postnatal instructor and join a group where you will have fun, get some guidance and be monitored for safety. How do you find such a person? Try our Find A Class or Trainer page.
What is effective? Don’t spend your time on things that may be nice to do but don’t help you focus and prepare for birth, relieve discomforts or have the stamina for birth and parenting. There is substantial scientific evidence and information from large surveys that these things are helpful.
Cardiovascular or aerobic activity is the most important activity you can do. Already fit? Keep working out; join a class if you want support or new friends. If you are sedentary or somewhat active, you can improve your fitness by doing at least 20 – 30 minutes of aerobic activity 3 times a week. Work at a moderate pace – somewhat hard to hard – so that you can talk, but not sing an aria! If you are more than 26 weeks and have not been doing cardio, you can walk at a comfortable pace. Aerobics is key because it gives you endurance to tolerate labor and promotes recovery.
Strength and flexibility exercises that do not hurt and are done correctly are also safe. There are some special pregnancy exercises that actually help you prepare for birth. Essential exercises that aid your comfort, alignment and birth preparation include:
• Kegels (squeezing and relaxing pelvic floor muscles) – squeezing strengthens them and thus supports the contents of the abdomen, and learning to release these muscles is necessary for pushing and birth.
• Abdominal hiss/compress and C-Curve® – contracting the transverse abdominal muscles reduces low back discomfort and strengthens the muscle used to push and later to recover abdominal integrity after birth.
• Squatting – getting into this position strengthens the entire leg in a deeply flexed position; start seated and use arms for support, stability and safety. Leg strength improves mobility and comfort in pregnancy and postpartum; plus, deep flexion is a component of pushing in almost all positions.
• Strengthening for biomechanical safety – strengthening some parts of the body helps prevent injury to bone surfaces, nerves and blood vessels within joints re-aligned in pregnancy. This can be done using resistance repetitions (weights, bands, calisthentics or pilates) or isometrics (yoga or ballet). A responsible class will focus on upper back (rowing), push-ups, abdominals, gluteals, hamstrings, and muscles of the lower leg.
• Stretching of areas that tend to get tight – relieving some discomforts through flexibility helps you maintain a full range of motion. Static stretches, used in combination with strength exercises or following aerobics, is most effective. Stretching prior to exercise tends to produce more injuries than not stretching. Areas needing stretching include the chest, low back, hamstrings and hip flexors (psoas).
Mind/Body skills are very important. There are two activities that exercisers constantly tell us are a big help in pregnancy, birth and parenting.
• Centering employs a balanced or neutral posture, deep breathing and mindfulness to help you work in a relaxed way. Athletes and dancers call this “the zone.” Starting your workout in association with your body establishes economy of motion, something very useful in birth and parenting, and reduces risk of injury.
• Relaxation is another key activity; it relieves stress, promotes labor in the early stages and helps you enter the zone!