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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.