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)
DTP: When did you first work or study with DTP? HSB: We first discovered DTP in 2011 while researching evidence-based exercise programs for pregnant women. DTP was exactly what we were looking for! So in January of 2012, Healthy Start Brooklyn trained three former clients and one staff member to teach free DTP classes to low-income pregnant women in Central Brooklyn. It took some time for us to get the program up and running, but we have been offering classes since March of this year and they have been continuing successfully ever since.
DTP: Describe the focus or mission of your work. HSB: Healthy Start Brooklyn is a federally funded program that seeks to improve the health and wellness of women, infants and families in Central Brooklyn. Rates of infant death, premature birth and illness in the neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Bushwick, East New York, and Flatbush are far higher than elsewhere in New York City and the U.S. as a whole. HSB provides support services, education and training to reduce these inequalities and improve the lives of Central Brooklyn residents. Our DTP classes, as with our childbirth education and doula programs, are aimed at trying to offer our clients free services that are available to more affluent women to help offset some these inequalities that can have a negative impact on birth outcomes.
DTP: What do you most enjoy about your work? HSB: We enjoy seeing our clients coming back to class every week. Some of them have very little support systems in their lives, and it is extremely rewarding to see them participate in class each week and stay after class to talk to each other and share stories. It is our hope that the class not only positively affects their physical health, but also their mental health as well, serving as a place where they can de-stress and socialize with other women in similar situations. We also really enjoy receiving pictures of the babies that our class had some part in helping enter the world healthy!
DTP: What is the most important or interesting thing you have learned from working with moms, moms-to-be, or other women clients? HSB: Pregnant women can move! In the beginning, we were nervous about making our class routines too high intensity for some of the women who were further along in their pregnancies. We were surprised to find that they could all keep up and were even requesting the higher intensity routines.
To learn more and see more photos, go to the DTP Blog:
In Part 4 of our continuing series on DTP’s offspring, meet Renee Crichlow, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer from Barbados, whose REAC Fitnessbusiness includes Mum-me 2 B Fitness Series (prenatal), After Baby Fitness Series (postnatal) and 6 week Jumpstart Body Transformation Program (general female population).
See photos and read more about Renee’s business on the DTP Blog here. The adventures of one of her students is featured in a recent series of articles in Barbados Today.
Renee is a women’s fitness specialist, targeting all stages of a woman’s life cycle from adolescent, child bearing years, prenatal, postnatal to menopause. I design various exercise programmes to help women get into shape. As a trainer, friend and coach, I am committed to guiding, motivating and educating women to exceed their fitness goals and to permanently adopt healthy lifestyles. She started studying with DTP in March 2012 and completed the practicum in May 2012.
I most enjoy the good feeling associated with knowing that I am helping women to positively change their lives through exercise. I have learned that we are connected and not separate from each other. Sharing our challenges and triumphs enable each of us to grow and have a sense of belonging like a sisterhood. The baby and pregnancy stories always amaze me and I learn a lot considering I don’t have children of my own. I am also fascinated by the fact that as the pregnant mummies bellies grow, they are still moving with lots of energy and I feed off of that energy. I just love working with pregnant ladies and mothers.
I have long wanted to write this post. Recently two articles appeared in the NY Times prompting me to move forward. One article dealt with how it is that ongoing vigorous exercise produces brain enhancements. The second article dealt with how running creates its “high” and explained why the resulting addiction is an evolutionary benefit for human survival.
Every day in Africa a gazelle wakes up.
It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.
Every morning a lion wakes up.
It knows that it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle.
When the sun comes up, you better be running.
Ethiopia, circa 1974
The pregnant mom who exercises vigorously and regularly — the one who runs or swims or does aerobic dancing — is not the one at risk, or whose infant is at risk, of a lack of tolerance for the rigors of labor or for lifestyle health problems. It is the sedentary or low activity mother and her offspring who are at risk. I have written at length on this reality in my chapter on Women and Exercise in Varney’s Midwifery.
This realization has plagued me for ages, and the two articles in the Times convinced me to make this statement, explain why it is true and exhort women of childbearing age to become aerobic animals.
In the contemporary world, we are not as active as previous generations. Few women exercise to the extent required to develop the capacity to withstand the rigors of birth. It is little wonder that so often health care providers hear that women are afraid to exercise, and childbirth educators hear that pregnant moms are afraid of birth and don’t have confidence in their ability to do it. There are solutions for these issues…
The biggest bang for the buck is aerobics. This gets almost everything that helps you in labor. It increases endurance, strength and range of motion. It improves breathing capacity (you get more oxygen + less fatigue). It reduces your need to tap your cardiac reserve (your body works hard in labor but not to the degree it must if you are not fit). Plus, regular participation in a good cardio or aerobic workout gives you the mental toughness and confidence you need to know that your body is capable of the work and the recovery — what we call body trust. Fit Pregnancy has discussed the myths surrounding how hard a pregnant woman can work out.
Learning useful positions and movements is extremely helpful. Be sure that your workout also includes strength and coordination movements — such things as squatting, core movements for pelvis and spine, and other motions that aid your progress in labor. Being upright and moving are keys to a healthy labor. These require strength and coordination.
Mental focus and being present teach you to work with your body. Activities such as relaxation training, yoga, pilates for pregnancy and dance help you develop the mental skills (mindfulness and deep breathing) that accompany your movement. Learn to recognize your body’s signals so you know when it’s time to push.
A truly effective use of your time is a one hour class a couple times a week that combines all these elements. We have known this for decades. The evidence is clear that it works. Keep moving…right into labor and birth!
This post is adapted from the 3/17/11 DTP Blog on Pregnancy Exercise Safety. For more evidence-based information on Pre/postnatal Health & Fitness, check out the DTP Blog. The Blog includes information starting prior to conception and continuing through postpartum and mom-baby fitness.
There are three sections to this post: 1) moms-to-be, 2) pregnancy fitness teachers and personal trainers and 3) some specific contraindicated and adapted exercises. All information presented is based on peer-review research and evidence collected over a 30 year period of working with this population. More information on safety can be found on this site on the page Benefits, Safety & Guidelines.
1) Safety & Exercise Guidelines for Moms-To-Be
First and foremost, be safe. Trust your body. Make sure your teacher or trainer is certified by an established organization that specializes in pre/postnatal exercise, has worked under master teachers during her preparation, and can answer or get answers to your questions.
These are the safety principles that we suggest to our participants:
get proper screening from your health care provider
do not overreach your abilities
you are responsible for your body (and its contents)
Squatting is an example of a standard pregnancy exercise used for childbirth preparation that must be adapted by each individual based on body proportions, flexibility, strength and comfort.
Don’t assume that because your teacher and some participants can do a certain movement or position that you should be able to do it just like they do. If your teacher is well trained, she will be able to help you select variations that are appropriate for your body.
When you are exercising, make sure you are getting the most from your activity. Keep these findings in mind when choosing your workout routine:
Aerobics and strength training provide the greatest health benefits, reduce the risk for some interventions in labor, help shorten labor, and reduce recovery time
Centering helps to prevent injury; relaxation and deep breathing reduce stress; and mild stretching can relieve some discomforts
Avoid fatigue and over-training; do regular exercise 3 — 5 times a week
Eat small meals many times a day (200–300 calories every 2–3 hours
Drink at least 8 cups of water every day
Avoid hot, humid places
Wear good shoes during aerobic activities
BE CAREFUL! LISTEN TO YOUR BODY!
If you experience any of the following symptoms, stop exercising and call your health care provider:
Sudden pelvic or vaginal pain
Dizziness or shortness of breath
Leaking fluid or bleeding from the vagina
Regular contractions, 4 or more per hour
Increased heartbeat while resting
Sudden abnormal decrease in fetal movement (note: it is completely normal for baby’s movements to decrease slightly during exercise)
2) Safety & Exercise Guidelines for Teachers & Trainers
A principle of practice that increases in importance for fitness professionals working with pregnant women is having the knowledge and skills to articulate the rationale and safety guidelines for every movement she asks clients to perform.
This goal requires adherence to safety as the number one priority. Here is how we delineate safety and the procedures we require of our instructors for achieving safety in practice:
find an appropriate starting point for each individual
individual tolerances affect modification
general safety guidelines are physical
pregnant women also need psychological safety
Mind-Body Safety Procedures
Centering enhances movement efficiency and safety.
Always begin with centering.
Strength Training Cautions
avoid Valsalva maneuver
avoid free weights after mid pregnancy (open chain; control issue)
avoid supine after 1st trimester
avoid semi-recumbent 3rd trimester
keep in mind the common joint displacements, and nerve and blood vessel entrapment when designing specific exercises
Aerobics or Cardiovascular Conditioning Procedures
Monitor for safety
Instructional style needs to be appropriate.
Walking steps with natural gestures can be done throughout pregnancy
Vigorous steps with large gestures are more intense, appropriate as fitness increases
The ability to create movement that will be safe and work for various levels of fitness and at different points in pregnancy is one of the most critical skills for pregnancy fitness instructors.
Setting should provide physical and emotional safety
Equipment must be well-maintained
3) Contraindicated and adapted exercises
Exercises for which case studies and research have shown that there are serious medical issues include the “down dog” position, resting on the back after the 4th month, and abdominal crunches and oblique exercises. Here is more information and adaptation suggestions:
Contraindicated: “Down Dog” requires that the pelvic floor and vaginal area are quite stretched, bringing porous blood vessels at the surface of the vagina close to air. There are records of air entering the vaginal blood vessels in this position and moving to the heart as a fatal air embolism.
Adaptation: Use the child’s pose, with the seat down resting on the heels and the elbows on the ground, hands one on top of the other, and forehead resting on the hands. Keep the heart above the pelvis.
Contraindicated: Resting on the back during relaxation.
Adaptation: Rest in the side-lying position. About 75% prefer the left side, 25% prefer the right side.
Contraindicated: Abdominal crunches and oblique exercises can contribute to diastasis recti in some women. The transverse abdominal muscle is not always able to maintain vertical integrity at the linea alba, and thus there is tearing and/or plasticity of that central connective tissue.
Adaptation: Splinting with curl-downs, see positions below. By pressing the sides of the abdomen toward the center, women can continue to strengthen the transverse abdominals without the shearing forces that place lateral pressure on the linea alba.
Curl-downs are generally the safest and most effective abdominal strenthening exercise.
Splint by crossing arms and pulling toward center (L)
Or, splint by placing hands at sides and pressing toward center ®
It’s time to hit the main theme again: Aerobically fit women are at reduced risk for things that go wrong in pregnancy, improve their tolerance for labor and birth, and recover more rapidly in the postpartum period.
Moving into Motherhood
The arrival of the holidays provides a good reason to bring this up, yet again! Pregnancy is a gateway time in women’s lives…we become more aware of our bodies, our sensations, our feelings, our needs, and how versatile and amazing our bodies are. We can make people with our bodies! During pregnancy, we often take precautions…we eat more carefully, avoid toxins, try to avoid stress. When the holidays arrive, we see indulgent behavior in a different light.
Yet, even with all this focus on behavior, we sometimes miss the biggest aid to a healthy pregnancy: physical fitness. Research clearly demonstrates that fit women do better, are healthier and happier. More and more in the U.S. we see disorders of normal organ function that accompany sedentary pregnancy.
Let’s look at this a little closer (yes, I am going to repeat myself some more, but it is an important concept to spread). We live in a body model that rewards an active lifestyle.
Being sedentary causes things to go wrong
Not moving creates biochemical imbalances because the cardiovascular system atrophies and molecules created in the brain or brought in through the digestion may not get where they need to go for a healthy metabolism.
Your cardiovasculature is the highway that brings usable substances to the place they are used. You have to help it grow and develop, use it to pump things around and give it a chance to be healthy. Aerobic fitness does all these things.
Advice for young women of childbearing age
If you are thinking of pregnancy, have recently become pregnant, or work with women of childbearing age, we encourage you to open avenues of activity for yourself or others in this population. You can learn more from our blog dancingthrupregnancy.wordpress.com. You can seek out local pre/postnatal fitness experts on this site. Yoga is nice…we use some of it in our work, along other specific exercises for which there is a direct health benefit. But, we also see yoga converts who come into our program in mid pregnancy unable to breathe after walking up a flight of stairs. How will they do in labor? Not as well as those who have been doing aerobic dance or an elliptical machine 2 or 3 times a week.
The AHA/ACSM guidelines for the amount of aerobic exercise needed to improve cardiovascular status hold true for pregnant women just as they do for the rest of the population – a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate, or 75 minutes of vigorous, or a combination of these levels of intensity, per week. If you are not getting this level of activity, you are putting your health – and that of your offspring – at risk.
I love Yoga. But…Power Yoga, Hot Yoga, Fast Yoga, Pilates-Yoga, Fresh Yoga, Baby Yoga and even Prenatal Yoga…not so much. I find these phenomena strange.
Why? Well, 40 years ago – when I first learned Yoga – it was a privilege. A person came to Yoga in the search for a meaningful life path. It was a blend of the spiritual and the physical, and it required a commitment to what was revealed within the practice. Before being allowed to take my first class, I had to demonstrate that I already practiced meditation. It was not exercise per se.
It was not adaptable like it is today. Depending on the teacher, you learned an ancient system – Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar, or Kundalini. Those were the major methods that have Hindu roots, and those who practiced these art forms knew what they were doing. The teachers themselves had worked on their craft for decades. Today, I know only a few teachers who have a profound grasp of each of these methods.
Why is Yoga so popular?
Is there something within the work itself – even in the diluted forms, hybrid versions and the celebrity/competitive studios – that allows it to thrive in the self-centered, free-wheeling, branding-crazy marketplace of the early 21st century developed world?
I find the answer to this in a strange place: Zen practice, Bhuddism. One of my favorite notions is from Suzuki’s text Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. “When you feel disagreeable, it is best to sit.” This is an element of nin – constancy – or being present in the moment. Not patience, which requires a rejection of impatience and therefore cannot accept the present as it is. When you sit – just sit period, that’s it – all that is real is the moment. This is at the heart of all spiritual experience.
I’m not an expert in Yoga. I don’t teach Yoga, although I have integrated Yoga-based skills into my work. I have practiced Hatha and Vinyasa over the years enough to learn how certain skills are treated…belly breathing, slow deep breathing, maintaining position and listening to the wisdom of the body, and isometric strengthening in preparation for more expansive shapes or motions. Long ago, I integrated these skills from my Yoga experience into my teaching style because these skills are effective for the populations with which I work. But, I do not teach Yoga.
Can Research Help Us?
Researchers find Yoga a nightmare. There is so much variance now in the practice that findings from any one study cannot be transferred to the general population. One of the most revealing experimental-design studies found that none of the claims of Yoga improving metabolism could be demonstrated. When asked why they thought this outcome had occurred, the teachers who were used in the study said they thought the participants in the study were not fit enough to do Yoga!
One of the most successful Yoga teachers in my area, and one of my favorites, has for decades used a bicycle for her primary mode of transportation. She credits her longevity and success to Yoga. I attribute it to bicycling. Dr. Cooper is right…fitness (which means aerobic fitness) is the biggest bang for the buck. Unless you are fit, it is hard to execute some of the more subtle demands of many exercise regimens.
Some Yoga teachers will say that you can make Yoga aerobic or that some forms are aerobic. OK, then it’s aerobics, not Yoga. Whenever I see “aerobic Yoga” it reminds me of aerobic dancing. It’s helpful to remember that Yoga developed in a time and place where survival was dependent upon fitness. People didn’t need to do more aerobics to find enlightenment. They needed reflection and to be present in the moment.
So, I insist on aerobic fitness as the first goal of a fitness regimen. In the pre/postnatal field, this is the only consistently demonstrated factor in improved outcomes. As a birth preparation there are Yoga-based factors that will help in labor and birth IF THE WOMAN IS FIT ENOUGH. It is the fact that some Yoga-based skills help fit people find nin that is my justification for continuing to use them in conjunction with aerobics and special pre/postnatal preparation and recovery exercises.
But, there are cautions. Not all Yoga assanas (positions) are safe for pregnancy. Down-dog, in particular, scares me because of incidents reported in obstetrical literature in the 1980s and 1990s that indicate such a position is implicated in fatal embolisms. Some shapes are just not doable and others become less comfortable over time. The ones that work have been identified since the 1940s and 1950s and integrated into birth preparation courses.
All exercise components -
Aerobic or Cardiovascular Fitness
- are necessary for a balanced fitness routine. Too much emphasis on any one factor often results in injury. Aerobics is where the greatest health benefits reside. Recent research has demonstrated that it is physical “fitness” (which we can measure) as opposed to just spending time in physical activity (which can be a wide range of intensities) that is responsible for improved health outcomes. Strength and flexibility training need to be purposive. There are things we don’t need to do unless we are going to play pro football or dance Swan Lake! Mind/Body skills help us recover and prepare.
I for one will be glad when we get beyond yoga and back to cross training!