The 4 most common question about pre- and post-natal exercising:
1. What are the benefits of exercise for women pre and post-natal?
Women who exercise during pregnancy tend to have a more positive pregnancy experience and are better prepared mentally and physically for the marathon event that is labour as well as promoting a faster recovery. Exercise can help prevent gestational diabetes, maintain cardiovascular fitness levels as well and muscular strength and flexibility. Circulation, coordination and balance can become impaired during pregnancy but this can be avoided with regular exercise.
The benefits of exercise continue following childbirth. Exercise helps to build self-confidence and a positive body image as well as relieving stress and helps to prevent post-natal depression. Exercise tones and strengthens the core muscles, which includes the pelvic floor and muscles surrounding the hips and pelvis which leads to improved posture, muscular endurance, and ultimately reducing the risk of injury.
2. How does a woman’s body change during pregnancy and after childbirth?
Before and after pregnancy the body undergoes a considerable number of changes causing symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, puffy ankles, hands and wrists, reflux, heart burn, constipation, incontinence. For the woman intending on returning to sport, it is important to be aware of the changes that will prevent injury free, higher level sport if they are not addressed. The abdominal muscles have lengthened and often separated to accommodate the growing baby, which reduces their ability to contract and therefore function most efficiently. Likewise, the ability of the pelvic floor to contract and function properly is altered due to the continuous stretch it has been put under over the course of the pregnancy. This leads to reduced pelvic stability. With regards to posture, the pelvis is pulled into a more forwards position, which causes the buttock muscles to ‘switch off’ making the pelvis, hips and knees unstable. The lower back becomes more arched, the upper back becomes more curved and the shoulders and neck move into a more rounded and forwards position, all of which are uncomfortable and prevent the back muscles supporting the spine properly. The ligaments supporting the joints around the body remain lax until the pregnancy and breastfeeding hormones leave the body. This puts the muscles under even more pressure to support the joints when the ligaments cannot.
3. There is a lot of talk in gyms about core stability but what is it and why is it so important?
The core of the body includes the spine, hips and pelvis, upper portion of the leg, abdominal structures and muscles surrounding this area. Most of the main muscles used for moving and stabilizing the arms and legs are attached to the core.
‘Core stability’ is the ability to control the position and motion of the trunk over the pelvis and leg to allow optimum production, transfer and control of power and movement to the arms and legs. In this way, the spine (and core of the body) is stabilized before movements of the limbs occur to allow them to have a stable base for motion and muscle activation in sports activities including running, cycling, swimming, kicking and throwing a ball, manipulating a racket and so on.
As an example, research has shown that weak and shortened hip muscles and resulting alteration of hip/trunk position are a common finding associated with knee injury. Similarly, reduced hip flexibility and strength is seen in nearly half of all sports people with cartilage tears in the shoulder. When elements such as strength, range of motion, joint alignment, coordination and balance in the core area are not working optimally, the ability of the core to generate and transmit power to the limbs is effected and the risk of injury is increased.
4. Where do you start with core training?
Given the changes that occur in the body following childbirth, specifically regarding your core area, it is important to focus some time rehabilitating this area prior to returning to your chosen sport and higher intensity exercise.
First stage - restore correct posture. By doing this, muscles and joints will be put in the best position for working optimally.
Stage two - it is important to make sure the muscles that stabilize the spine, pelvis and hips are working properly and at the correct time. Research shows that abdominal, pelvic floor and small muscles in the back should be the first muscles to activate in order to make sure the spine is supported before movement elsewhere in the body occurs. Spend time locating and becoming aware of the deep abdominal muscles and the pelvic floor. A physiotherapist or exercise professional trained in post-natal exercise will be able to guide you with this.
Stage three - once the stabilizing muscles are working well and at the right time you can then add on movements of your arms and legs. Start with small movements in single directions, then add weight, repetitions and speed.
The fourth stage is to build the exercises up so that they incorporate whole body movements that mimic the sport you are returning to whether it be tennis, running, cycling etc. For example when you run you don’t just move your legs in a stepping pattern - your trunk rotates, your arms move forwards and back, and your body moves up and down and forwards. Exercises have to reflect all of these elements in order for your training to be most effective and your core to be able to support you when you return to the sport and need to sustain repeated movements over an extended period of time.
The final stage is return to sport and like anything, start for short periods of time and build up.