Heat, humidity, the summer doldrums — not the best invitation to exercise, especially if you're pregnant. But there's a remedy: Get thee to a pool!
Being in the water just plain feels good when you're pregnant, and there are physiological reasons why. Water greatly reduces the usual stress on your musculoskeletal system and supports the weight of the fetus, thus taking a load off your lower back. Water also makes it easier for the heart to pump blood, reduces pregnancy-related swelling (edema) and takes pressure off your bladder.
Even as it soothes you, the pool environment allows for a total-body workout. Water provides 12 times the resistance to your muscles as does air, thus offering a strength-training benefit similar to lifting light weights.
For Antigone Cook, an Oregon-based instructor of water fitness, aerobics, ballet and certified Pilates who designed the program that follows, water workouts turned out to be the most comfortable way to exercise when she was pregnant.
"I didn't have any back problems, and I had a lot less swelling in my feet and ankles than other women," she says. She believes that her water routine even helped make her labor easier. Many women find swimming to be a vigorous workout that they can continue all the way up to delivery — and into their postpartum life. The water is also a good place to concentrate on psychological fitness.
In her book, The KeyEnergy! Pregnancy Workbook, Cook suggests that you approach delivery as you would an athletic event — by physically and mentally training for it.
"For the first child especially, many women tend to be very frightened and don't know what's going to happen," she says. If you picture the best possible outcome, however, you can begin to release that fear — hence Cook's suggestions for creating positive visualizations during your water exercise programs.
Cook's program is divided into three distinct workouts: shallow water, deep water and swimming. You can mix and match portions of each workout or stick with just one; it's a very flexible regimen that works for every fitness level and stage of pregnancy. The shallow-water workout is designed for women who did not exercise regularly prior to pregnancy or for more fit women on their tired days. The deep-water exercises are somewhat more challenging but are aided by the use of an Aquajogger buoyancy belt.
The swimming workout is the most advanced part of the program. Let your comfort rule: If swimming feels good, do it; if it doesn't, stick with the deep- or shallow-water programs. Keep your intensity level moderate — 3 to 5 on an exertion scale of 10. You should be able to carry on a conversation while exercising. Cook sees this workout as a time to spend appreciating your body as it changes — giving yourself positive strokes, so to speak. Luxuriate in the cooling environment of the pool, and have fun as you improve your fitness.
Soon enough you'll be sharing your world with someone else; make this your time.
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The program: There are 3 components to this water workout: shallow-water moves, deep-water moves and swimming. You can incorporate all the components in your weekly routine, parts of each or just stick to one. If you're really fit, you can combine all 3 workouts into a 1-hour program, 3–4 times per week. As your pregnancy progresses, adapt your routine to what feels good to you. If you haven't been exercising, start slowly in whichever program you choose. Stay at a low intensity until you feel stronger, then exercise at varying levels of intensity during the week, or add an additional workout session for a greater challenge.
The pool: Use a pool with a comfortable temperature: 85–87 degrees is perfect; below 83 degrees is considered cool.
Begin with at least 5 minutes of shallow-water walking. As you walk, limber up with shoulder shrugs, ankle and hip circles, head rolls, arm reaches and knee lifts. (If you prefer, you can tread water in the deep end or hold on to the edge of the pool and kick.)
As you warm up, visualize your body being relaxed and strong, your baby healthy. Even if you've never been through labor, imagine what it will be like in a positive way. For example, picture labor as an athletic event at which you will be successful, accomplishing your goal with little pain. As you do each exercise, focus on your breathing, expanding your belly slightly as you inhale and tightening your abdominals as you exhale, doing a Kegel at the same time if you wish.
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Stand in chest-deep water to do these moves. Be sure to wear water shoes or Aquasocks to keep from slipping on the bottom of the pool. If you're doing only this workout, spend 20–30 minutes on the routine, 3–6 days per week. Because of the water's buoyancy, you may be able to continue water walking or running all the way through your pregnancy. Do the exercises in the order listed without stopping.
Before getting in the water, fasten an Aquajogger belt securely around your middle, where comfortable. Then, float in water deep enough that your legs won't touch the pool bottom. You can do these moves through all 3 trimesters, but near the end of your pregnancy, you'll probably focus more on upper body and arms because your belly will limit movement.
Do exercises in the order listed without stopping. If you're only doing the deep-water program, you can do this routine 3–6 times a week. If you're cross training, do the program 2 or 3 times a week. As your pregnancy progresses, the deep-water program may feel more comfortable than any of the others.
If the water is warm, complete your cool-down in the pool, stretching thighs, calves and back. Hold each stretch 20–30 seconds. If the water is cold, you may want to move through each stretch without holding it too long, or stretch out of the water.