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The Benefits of Walking for Pregnant and New Moms

pregnant woman walking in stretch pants and sweater

These days, store shelves far and wide are stocked with DVDs of every exercise from Pilates to belly dancing. But when you're pregnant or adjusting to the demands of new motherhood, learning the vocabulary and new moves of the latest fitness fad is probably not a top priority.

That's why walking is such a terrific way to stay fit. You can adjust the time and pace to suit your needs, and all you need is a pair of good shoes and the will to move. So get the go-ahead from your doctor to exercise and follow these simple steps from walking experts Liz Neporent and Debbie Rocker.

Dos and Don'ts for Pregnant Walkers

Don't measure your performance against your prepregnancy fitness level. During pregnancy, the idea is to maintain your level of fitness, not necessarily improve upon it.

Do be aware of your altered sense of balance; a big belly changes your center of gravity, so it'll take some time to get used to walking with extra weight around your middle.

Don't walk in extremely hot weather. It's very easy to overheat during exercise when you're pregnant, so you may want to do your walk on a treadmill when the weather's sultry.

Do listen to your body, carefully. Now is not the time to test your fitness limits. "If your body tells you to put on the brakes, do it," says Neporent. Getting thirsty, very tired, or lightheaded isn't good for you or your baby.

Hey, you do it anyway, right? Here, some added incentives to take some extra strides every day:

  • It keeps your heart strong and your muscles toned. "A stronger mom will have an easier time meeting the demands of motherhood," says Neporent, an exercise physiologist, personal trainer, and author of Fitness Walking for Dummies (IDG).
  • It may help you have a shorter, easier labor.
  • It burns calories, which helps prevent excess weight gain.
  • It keeps your body fit, which offers protection from gestational diabetes and preeclampsia.
  • You'll have an easier time exercising after you have the baby, "because you'll already have an exercise routine in place," says Rocker, a personal trainer and fitness expert based in Los Angeles, who specializes in walking workouts.
  • It eases constipation.
  • Anyone can do it, "and it's something you can do just for yourself before you have to focus on your baby," Neporent says.

  • It will help rid you of extra baby weight.
  • It gets you out of the house, which is crucial in boosting your confidence as a new mother.
  • "Regular exercise can help reduce or even stave off postpartum depression," says Rocker.
  • It boosts your energy.
  • You can meet other moms during your walk, which improves your mommy social prospects.

Do give yourself time to gear up to exercise. Some women will be able to walk weeks after giving birth; others may need more healing time. "Just taking a few turns around the block is a great start," says Rocker.

Don't expect an overnight transformation. A regular walking program will help you get your shape back, but it may take several months -- even a year.

Do take advantage of stroller jaunts and dog walking to add a kick to your regular walking workout.

Don't fitness walk with your baby in an infant carrier as resistance. "Ergonomically, carriers are designed for leisure walking, not fitness walking, so you could hurt yourself using one," notes Rocker.

  • No slumping, please!
  • Keep your head up. Lifting from the chin makes it easier. Focusing on the horizon helps, too.
  • Push your shoulders back. Imagine you're cracking a nut between your shoulder blades, then relax your shoulders.
  • Tuck in your abs and tip your pelvis slightly forward (pregnant walkers may not be able to do this).
  • Bend your arms to a 90-degree angle.

  • Do a five-minute warm-up by marching in place.
  • Strength-train every other day.
  • Aim to walk 30 to 45 minutes a day.
  • New moms: Vary your workout for the best results. Try interval training by speeding up your pace for two minutes, then walking at a more moderate one for the next two, continuing the pattern throughout your walk.
  • Moms-to-be: Use a heart rate monitor to make sure you're not overdoing it, and judge how you feel on a 1- to-10 scale, 10 being the best. If you're not feeling great, slow down.
  • At the end of your walk, cool down at a slower pace for five minutes.
  • Stretch thoroughly.

A good stretch helps protect your ligaments and muscles from injury. "Doing it after you walk is most effective and efficient; you're much more likely to injure yourself stretching cold, tight muscles than you are warm, pliable ones," says Neporent. If you're pregnant, stretch with care; all those hormones rushing around in your body loosen your ligaments, so it's easy to overstretch. Here are four post-walk stretches. Hold each of them for a count of 10, and do each of them on both your right and left sides.

Hamstring Stretch

What to do: Bend at the waist to a 45-degree angle. Place the heel of your right foot on the ground and bend your left knee. Place your hands on your left knee or thigh for balance.

Where's the stretch? On the back of your upper right leg.

Quad Stretch

What to do: Stand up tall in front of a bench or gate. Place your right hand on the bench for support. Lift your right foot behind you as if you were trying to touch your butt. Grab your foot with your left hand.

Where's the stretch? On the front of your upper right leg.

Calf Stretch

What to do: Stand in front of a wall, about two feet away. Place your hands against the wall. Bend your left knee to a 45-degree angle and step your right leg back a foot.

Where's the stretch? On the lower back half of your right leg.

Cat/Cow

What to do: Get down on all fours with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees. Round your back, and look between your legs. Then look up, arch your back, and stick your butt in the air.

Where's the stretch? In your abs and your lower back.

Yes, even walkers can benefit from strength training. Strong muscles help prevent injury and enhance your walking performance. But if you're pregnant, get your doctor's okay before you try any resistance training. Your modified sense of balance can affect your form and cause injury. Start with one set of eight repetitions on each side, working up to two sets of 15. Train every other day with warm muscles; never strength-train with cold muscles.

Lunge

What to do: Stand up tall, feet hip width apart. Step your right leg forward until it reaches a 90-degree angle, making sure your knee doesn't creep over your ankle.

Muscles trained: Buttocks, hips, thighs

Calf Raise

What to do: Step both feet up on a stair or exercise bench, allowing your heels to hang over the back. (Choose a spot near a wall so you can grab it for support.) Raise yourself up on your tiptoes, hold for a second or two, then roll your heels down slightly below the step.

Muscles trained: The back of your lower leg

Push-Up

What to do: New moms can do the traditional style. Lie on your stomach. Place your hands at shoulder level, slightly wider than your shoulders with your fingers pointing forward. Bend your elbows and lower your body down, hovering a few inches above the floor. Return to starting position. Pregnant women can stand facing a wall. Place your palms on the wall at shoulder height, slightly wider than your shoulders. Place your legs at a 45-degree angle to the wall. Bend at the elbows and hover a few inches from the wall. Return to starting position.

Muscles trained: Chest, shoulders, lower back

Walking doesn't have to be a bore. Start a walking group with your friends and change locations frequently. Botanical gardens, parks, college campuses, and beaches are scenic, free, and save you from same thing, different day syndrome. On rainy days, walk the mall. Contact your local mall to see if it has a mall-walker program. Or start one yourself!

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, August 2004.