New Fit 4 Two classes starting next week!

It’s that time of year again: new schools for both my kids (one in high school, one in kindergarten, OMG), and new classes for me to teach.  Next week I’m running two free trials for Fit 4 TwoStroller Fitness on Monday morning and Prenatal Fitness on Tuesday evening.  I love doing the free trials because they’re an opportunity to welcome new folks, show them what Fit 4 Two is all about and hopefully give them some take-home ideas for how to maintain or improve their fitness levels, and also to say “thank you” to repeat customers by giving them a little freebie before the new session begins in earnest.

This session is going to be a lot of fun.  We’ve had a beautiful August, and I’m really hoping the weather stays nice enough to keep Stroller Fitness outside!  In the event it doesn’t, however, we will use the gym at the community centre and do an indoor version of this mobile workout.  With any luck, we may be able to take parts of Prenatal Fitness outside, too, since it’s still light outside well into the evening.  I’m still working with some of the moms and babies who took my prenatal classes last fall.  Now I’m looking forward to seeing some new faces, and being even a small part of such an important time in women’s lives.  One of my favourite things to do as a fitness instructor is the relaxation segment that concludes every Prenatal Fitness class, where we take a few minutes to just be mindful of how we each feel at that moment, to focus without judgment on the transformations taking place in each of the women’s bodies, and to experiencing each moment fully without worrying about what came before or what we have to do next.  I like it because, let’s face it, we can all use some relaxation at the end of a long day, and because there is no better preparation for labour and birth than learning to accept and respect your body for what it is, what it can do, and what it needs in the moment.

In addition to Stroller and Prenatal Fitness, I’m also adding a new class format to the schedule this year, Tummies 4 Mommies, which I’m pretty excited about.  It’s a progressive series of classes that focus specifically on postpartum core rehabilitation. Participants will learn techniques for engaging and strengthening their core muscles from the inside out, and they’ll get handouts to take home so they can practice their technique on their own time (or not).  So many people spend so much time doing a million crunches to no avail (and actually with a potentially negative impact if they experienced diastasis recti during pregnancy or if they haven’t first strengthened their deeper core muscles):  I’m looking forward to working in a very focused way with women to help them activate the muscle groups that are really going to give them an integrated, effective approach to building a stable core, and help protect them from some of the problems that result from weak muscles in this area (can anyone say urinary incontinence? boo…). Core classes are also fun because they offer lots of opportunities to interact with the babies during the workout.  The babies are adorable, plus this takes the pressure off the moms to try and fit their exercise in between moments of fussiness as they can continue to snuggle, play or even nurse throughout a lot of the movements!  If you want to learn more about core conditioning during and after pregnancy, check out this month’s edition of Fit 4 Two’s newsletter, and remember that there are franchises operating all over western Canada, so there are lots of opportunties to join these classes. 🙂

Simple

It all really just comes down to this:

Stop pathologizing my body.

Prenatal & postpartum weight: giving up and giving in

“All new moms worry about losing the baby weight.”

How’s that for a major generalization? 

True, many new moms worry about this, maybe even most.  But all is a troubling superlative, not only because it’s almost guaranteed to be untrue (find one exception, and the hypothesis crumbles) but more importantly because it reinforces the cultural imperatives for women to be thin no matter what, and to put weight at the top of their list of concerns at all times. Statement:  All new moms worry about losing the baby weight.  Subtext:  If you aren’t worried about this, you should be because everyone else is.

Note that the article linked above, about so-called “mommyrexia” (could there be a more infuriating term?) invites women to share their methods for “stay[ing] slim in pregnancy or los[ing] weight after giving birth.”  I’m all for women sharing their experiences, but I find this formulation troubling. Surely there are better and less sensationalist ways of acknowledging women’s fears about the changes to their bodies during pregnancy.

As a pre and postnatal fitness instructor, obviously I have a vested interest in helping women maintain their health during and after pregnancy. This includes promoting healthy weight gain while growing a baby, and appropriate weight loss in the months following.  But I won’t do it in a way that upholds the paradigm in which weight plays a disproportionate role in determining a woman’s worth or which shames women whose bodies don’t conform to current weight and shape ideals.  Yes, exercise burns calories and can reduce body fat; no, we won’t talk about that in my classes.

I work to support prenatal and postpartum women’s health, not to help them police the size of their bodies.  Body size and weight are only two variables among many that indicate a person’s level of fitness and capacity for activity, and the jury is still very much out when it comes to conclusions about the relationship between weight gain, weight loss, health and pregnancy. Science and Sensibility’s recent series on maternal obesity demonstrates this beautifully.

Different women gain different amounts of weight during pregnancy for reasons that often have less to do with food intake or exercise than you might think. This can be scary for a lot of women. Larger women have reason to fear being treated as if they’ve done something wrong if their weight continues to increase during pregnancy, and they are likely to be categorized automatically as high risk and subjected to a variety of  prenatal and birth interventions as a result. Smaller women may have their own set of fears, especially if they usually go to herculean efforts to keep their weight at a certain level or maintain a particular shape. It’s hard to drop that mentality and to weather the pressure not to ‘let yourself go’ just because the stick has turned blue. 

But what does ‘letting go’ really mean?  There is some implication that it means giving up, giving in, and that these are inherently bad things to do.  But we could re-frame the concept as giving up our culturally-determined beliefs about how our bodies should look. And rather than giving in to the TV-land stereotype of gluttonous-pregnant-woman-eating-for-two, how about giving in to pregnancy, which is designed to ensure that women gain the fat and fluid they need to carry a baby to term, and have the energy necessary to labour and birth a healthy baby.

In this framework, giving up and giving in are important steps toward good mental and physical health, and they are perfectly congruent with staying active and eating a diet of nutrient-rich foods in amounts that satisfy hunger and thirst.  This framework promotes health for all women, all of the time, without prejudice or judgment about size and shape.

The more we learn to listen to our bodies during pregnancy, to explore how they grow and change and to support their new needs, the more likely they are to respond appropriately to pregnancy’s demands.  And the happier our bodies are during pregnancy, when we’re feeding, moving and resting them well, the more likely they are to recover appropriately in the months that follow.

Healthy Beginnings

I had the pleasure this week of being a guest speaker at a couple of Healthy Beginnings meetings, which are drop-in groups for young children, babies and their caregivers sponsored by the local health unit.  I spoke to one group in Duncan earlier in September, and two groups on Thursday in Shawnigan Lake.  I did a little demo of core work with the women (all moms except for one nanny), and checked a few for diastasis recti (everyone was good to go!).  But aside from encouraging more people to strengthen their pelvic floors, I really wanted to get two points across:  a) let them know that I’m here as a resource for them in the community; and b) emphasize the notion that fitness is holistic, and that postpartum fitness, especially, has little to do with fitting into pre-pregnancy jeans.

Let’s talk about the second point first.  I’ve written about this before here so I won’t repeat those points now.  But I was struck at the drop-ins by how much women focus on changing their size after pregnancy.  Of course I already knew this was the case, but every time I see signs of it, the red light starts to flash in my head: teachable moment!  teachable moment!  There are practical reasons to want to get back to pre-pregnancy size–the most significant of which is probably financial, as buying an entirely new postpartum wardrobe right after buying a new maternity wardrobe is an onerous expense.  But there is nothing wrong with taking time to get there, and moreover, a healthy lifestyle + time is the best formula for healthy and lasting post-pregnancy weight loss.  Anything extreme–extreme exercising, or even not-so-extreme dieting–is dangerous, plain and simple (and most likely ineffective).  

The thing is, we all know this, and beating people over the head with such information doesn’t work.  So instead, I tried to focus on the positive:  rather than telling people what not to do, I suggested what they can do to improve their health and wellbeing after baby, and to strengthen their bodies so that they can move with freedom, and with the knowledge that they are protecting their bodies from injury. Even more importantly, I tried to emphasize that they can do that without having to be away from their babies.  (Although there is nothing wrong with working out solo either–the point is, women have lots of options and they can pick and choose what is right for them at any given time.)  And I’ll tell you–it felt very good to look around the room at women’s faces and feel like they were soaking these messages in.  I know the relief I often feel when someone in a position of some authority/expertise gives me permission to be kind to myself and to follow my instincts about what is right or wrong for me as a parent, and I hope I was able to do that for some of the women there.

On the second topic: although part of my reason for going to the drop-ins was to let women know about Fit 4 Two, I had a bigger purpose in mind, and that was to let them know that there is a place they can go if they have questions about things to do with health and fitness during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum recovery.  I got involved with Fit 4 Two because I wanted to reach out to women as someone who is not a clinician of any sort, but has other kinds of information to share, and is happy to be a source of support.  Sometimes people hesitate to call on professionals when they have questions they feel are minor, or they have questions that professionals may not be equipped to answer (even the best birthy clinicians may know little about exercise physiology, for instance).  I wanted to introduce myself to the women as a fitness professional, but more importantly as their peer:  I know a lot about pre and postnatal fitness, but I’m also someone who has struggled through the pre and postnatal phases  and can lend an empathetic ear if they too are facing challenges.  So I was so glad to have the chance to go into these groups and let the women there know that they can email or call me any time with questions; if they are within my scope of practice, I’ll answer, and if they are outside it, I can help connect them with appropriate resources.  The point is that they aren’t alone, and they don’t have to pay a penny to be supported at this time in their lives, when so many women end up feeling isolated, inadequate, and often (sadly) at war with their own bodies.  Of course I’d love for them to take my classes, but it’s not about that; it’s about creating genuine relationships, and meeting women where they are, whether they are ready for and interested in a group workout or just need some basic information about how to work with their pregnant or postpartum bodies.

Oh, and I got to cuddle a newborn.  That was probably the highlight of the whole thing for me, personally.  There is nothing better than holding someone else’s newborn baby…  😉

Failure of Progress

I have real issues with the notion of “progress.” I first started thinking critically about the term while studying history during my undergrad degree.  Thinking about history—the process of change over time—you start to realize just how few things in life go steadily upward or get steadily, unproblematically better.  Rather, things happen in contradictory, often unpredictable, and always contingent ways.  We don’t get smarter with the passage of time or more clever, or stop repeating the same mistakes or necessarily do anything better; in the present and the future we are just as flawed as we were in the past, only in an ever-changing context.

I’m not going to write more here about the source of our collective faith in the notion of progress—that’s another essay for another time.  But I am going to say something about what our faith in progress does to our bodies in the context of both fitness and birth, two situations where the word “progress” gets used all the time, uncritically, and with damaging results.

In both fitness and birth, “progress” is an effort to impose objective values on the most subjective thing of all, individual bodies.  It maligns our bodily integrity by suggesting that we should gauge the work our bodies do from an outside perspective:  somehow, we won’t know that our bodies are working well unless we take the extra step of measuring, stacking ourselves up against an external set of values that most of us really don’t understand.  In fitness circles you’ll often hear things like, “Track your progress!  Get measureable results!” as if fitness should be measured in inches or six packs, and as if there are some magical measurements that guarantee we’ve done something right. 

In birth, tracking “progress” during labour—the rate of dilation and effacement, combined with a baby’s descent through the pelvis—holds a woman’s body to the rules of statistical averages at a time that we know is quite unpredictable.  And that makes me angry because it doesn’t really make a lot of sense.  We persist in making assumptions about labour progress, insisting that “normal” dilation is 1.2 cm per hour and holding women to that standard even though we know that birthing bodies frequently don’t follow those rules

Well, taken by the thousands, parsed into all sorts of ideal numerical values, added together and divided appropriately, they do.  But yours doesn’t.  Neither does mine.  Statistics are numerical abstractions reflecting large-scale trends; but they aren’t illustrations of any one human being.  You and me:  we are individuals who are likely to follow a typical curve, but who may not, and may still be perfectly fine.  In fact, interfering with a body during birth to try and compel it to get in line with numerical averages can cause problems where none would otherwise have existed.  How many times does a perfectly healthy woman with a perfectly healthy baby end up in the OR because of “failure to progress,” when that “failure” was in fact no failure at all, but rather a body that simply needed longer than the charts said it should to give birth, and as a result longer than people—birth attendants, family members, the woman herself—were willing to wait?  

The critique I offer here is not new.  Emily Martin, a cultural anthropologist, wrote years ago about the damage done to women by superimposing the schedule of industrial capitalism on to our bodies.  Anything irregular—anything challenging the pace of the mechanical clock and the expectations of the schedule-setters—has been termed a failure or a problem, when it could have been recognized positively, as an adaptive response to a particular set of physiological cues.  This has set women up to be at war with ourselves because while we may wish to follow the schedule—who doesn’t want to have her baby on that magical due date, her period on the very day it’s expected, her labour to end after a predicted number of hours?—these are things that, without herculean effort, we simply can’t control.  Instead of accepting that unpredictability, we fight against it in what is, overall, a losing battle.  Because no matter how much we try, our bodies are not machines.  Our bodies don’t respect the clock (or the measuring tape or the scale) and they probably never will.

We can’t make our bodies meet the metrics of progress without doing things that put us at risk.  Inducing or augmenting labour without medical necessity, for example—something I admit I’ve done myself—is risky behaviour that multiple studies have shown invites complication.  Following exercise plans that focus solely on measureable “results”—again, something I have definitely done in the past—is risky, too.  It interferes with our internal sense of our own fitness and health, and instead makes our visual cues, mediated by cultural ideals of beauty and strength, paramount, often leading to injury, illness or frustration.

The good news is that there is a way out.  It is possible to improve your fitness level, challenge yourself physically, and to move through a major life event such as birth without the judgment that “progress” implies.  Your body need not always be in competition with itself.  Imagine what it might feel like to let your body be as it is on its own schedule (or lack thereof), aware of and embracing a kind of movement through time that is completely different from the time on the clock, and existing in shapes and forms that have no relationship to the number on the label of your pants.  Imagine what fitness might mean if it was mainly about how you felt, instead of how you looked.  Imagine what labour might mean if there were no “right” due date or number of hours or centimetres.   

How would acknowledging the failures of progress change your fitness goals?  How would it change the way you treat your body not only in signal moments like labour and birth, but in everyday life?

When will my body go back to normal?

I don’t know what the statistics are on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the top concerns most women have going into pregnancy is about weight:  Will I gain too much?  Will I be able to lose it all when the pregnancy is done?   Will my body ever go back to normal?

I’ve devoted a lot of time to helping my fitness clients establish positive goals.  While I accept that many people exercise in order to lose weight—and that there are many people who do fit the medical criteria indicating a need for weight loss, and that they come to me because I know how to help them achieve that goal—I encourage my clients to think about the ways in which physical activity can build their bodies, rather than whittle them away. 

I can’t think of a more important context for this approach than in working with pregnant and postpartum women. 

I understand from both a personal and an intellectual perspective how hard it is to fight against the cultural grain that compels women during pregnancy and breastfeeding, when they are single-handedly creating and sustaining a whole other human life (or lives, in the case of multiple births), to try to remain as small as possible.   Like many other women, I struggled with body image issues while pregnant and postpartum.  Tragically, body image issues were part of what killed my nursing relationship with my first child after only 4 months.  And with my second baby, body image issues were a lot of what motivated me to go out and run 10 kilometres barely 7 weeks after my c-section, while pushing my baby in a jogging stroller—not something I would ever recommend to a client.

Still, while I agonized over ever again being able to fit into non-maternity pants, and grudgingly bought bras in sizes I thought were reserved only for porn stars and people addicted to cosmetic surgery, I tried to remind myself that weight gain in pregnancy is not only normal, but necessary.   And while some women lose all of their ‘baby weight’ within weeks of birth, there is no moral failure involved for those (like me) who don’t.  

Yet it’s hard not to get obsessive about body image while pregnant.  Everyone has an opinion about your size, and somehow all social graces that normally prohibit unsolicited commentary disappear.  Suddenly, everyone and their brother will tell you whether you are too big or too small, and compare you with their mother/aunt/sister/friend/cousin who gained a ton of weight/didn’t gain enough weight/barely looked pregnant/everyone thought was carrying twins because she was SO HUGE, etc.  

When I was about 14 weeks along with my second baby, I went for a manicure.  I’d spent months on my couch with debilitating nausea, and on the first day when I felt even remotely capable of leaving the house, my husband tried to cheer me up with a gift certificate to the salon. As I sat having my nails painted, the manicurist started trying to sell me electronic “firming treatments” intended to slim “problem areas.”  I explained that I wasn’t interested in trying to lose weight—I was pregnant.  But she didn’t miss a beat:  “Oh,” she exclaimed, “then you’ll really want to know about this for after the baby!”  And she wasn’t stopped when I tried to explain, politely, that no, actually, I didn’t want to know.  The sales pitch continued.  Needless to say, she never got to do my nails again.

But avoiding the rude manicurist didn’t solve my problem because there were more people around every corner waiting to put in their two cents regarding the size of my pregnant body.  And their judgments varied widely.  On one single day, when I was about 7.5 months along, one person declared that I was “HUGE—all baby!” while another –less than an hour later—clucked, “You’re so small!  Are you sure your dates are right?!”   There’s only so much of this crazy-making commentary a person can take.  By 8 months, and after a note on ratemyprofessor.com alluding to the hypnotic appearance of my pregnant décolletage (I defy anyone to find maternity wear that is both appropriate for teaching and won’t make you melt while lecturing in an 85-degree classroom—something had to give, and by that point there was no question that I was going to choose comfort over modesty), I was ready to bar the door and just stay home rather than deal with any more of it.

It’s tempting to comment on pregnant bodies.  They’re awesome, and for a lot of us they’re unusual, and when the body is a friend’s or a relative’s, it’s intriguing to see how someone we know so well can change so much in such a short time.   I’m not saying that all comments should be verboten.  But it might be worth thinking about how a seemingly innocuous comment about the size of a belly might also be a judgment of the degree to which a pregnant body conforms to or challenges the dominant culture of thinness.   

It is similarly worth asking why we expect women’s bodies to bear no lasting markers of pregnancy, one of life’s most major events.   When will my body go back to normal?  Never.  Because you’ll never have not been pregnant again.  I wish it were more acceptable to abandon the old normal in favour of the new.  I wish that women’s default would not be to ‘get back to normal,’ but instead to find a new balance, new strengths, and new possibilities.   This does not, by any means, mean welcoming maternity jeans permanently into your post-pregnancy wardrobe.  But it does mean that if you’re still wearing them when your baby is 3 months old, it’s not the end of the world.  New mothers have better things to do with their time than worry about the size of their pants.  And they can have more fulfilling, effective workouts if they can focus their minds on something more productive than shrinking.

When I teach fitness, I try to never talk about weight or shape.  I figure that everyone is already thinking about these things anyway; what if we try a different approach? 

Go with me on this radical idea.  What if, instead of focusing on pounds and inches and lumps and bumps, we talk about strength and power, and feeling capable of meeting life’s physical challenges?  What if we recognize weight gain during pregnancy as a normal and sensible adaptation to new physical demands?  What if we accept that some women’s bodies need more fat stores than others in order to support lactation?  What if we stop cajoling women to have some lovey-dovey, Pollyanna-ish sense of self-acceptance and instead validate that they live in a culture that is hostile to all fat—but maternal fat in particular—and that fighting against it is really, really hard?  What if we take active steps to help women understand that their bodies are as individual as the rest of them—just as no two people think alike, no two people look alike, and no two bodies respond in exactly the same way to pregnancy and nursing–and they need to learn individualized responses to their bodies’ new needs?  What if we talk about building stamina for labour, and preparing physically for the sleep-deprivation and marathon nursing sessions that are par for the course during the postpartum phase?  What if we stop trying to convince women—pregnant, postpartum, and otherwise—to disappear?  What if? 

I don’t think women would stop exercising.  In fact, I think a lot of women who otherwise wouldn’t exercise might start.  Because it would become an activity that helps them feel valuable, powerful and good, instead of something focused on reduction, depletion, and annihilation. 

 I have been scale-free since 2005.  I remained scale-free throughout my second pregnancy the following year (with the support of my midwives), so I actually don’t know how much weight I gained or how long it took to lose it, or whether I have actually lost it all.  I know that by my daughter’s first birthday, most of my pre-baby clothes fit again.   Some still don’t.  Because not only do we gain weight when pregnant, our body shape changes.   That can be hard to accept.  It was (is) definitely hard for me.  But it’s reality, and it’s not all bad.  I’m stronger than I was before Annika was born, and I’ve come through major surgery, nursed for 2.5 years, earned a third academic degree, gotten several new jobs, and done a million other things that make me a different person from who I was before she was conceived.  So my sundresses I bought at Old Navy in 2004 don’t fit anymore.  Big deal.  They’re probably out of style now anyway. 

So, I ask myself frequently how I’ll respond to women who come to my pre- and postnatal fitness classes with the intention of a) limiting their weight gain during pregnancy, and b) shedding the pounds afterward.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with either goal, and in fact there can be value in both.  Moreover, I don’t want to add another layer of judgment to their lives, as if the goals that motivate them to get moving are somehow wrong or inappropriate.  I do, however, hope to help my pre- and postnatal clients to expand or perhaps refocus their goals.  I want to help women understand the physiological changes they are going through, how to make the most of the unique time in life that is the childbearing year, and to find joy in the challenge of moving their pregnant and postpartum bodies.  By working with them to make fitness a regular part of their lives, I want to help women feel proud of the bodies they have earned, and enriched by the experience of using those bodies to create and then sustain new life.

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