Getting back into shape after having a baby is hard, even for women who were fit and strong before becoming pregnant, a new study shows.
Pregnancy is known to put stress on many parts of the body, including the heart, lungs, muscles and joints. But little research has been done to assess the long-term effects of pregnancy on people’s fitness.
David DeGroot at Martin Army Community Hospital in Fort Benning, Georgia, and his colleagues studied the impact of pregnancy on the fitness of 460 women who became pregnant while in the military.
Before they became pregnant, the women had high levels of fitness as a requirement of being active-duty soldiers. They continued modified fitness training during pregnancy and most returned to regular training by 12 weeks after giving birth.
Even with this dedicated training, many of the women struggled to regain their fitness. One year after giving birth, only 30 per cent were able to obtain the same score as they had pre‑pregnancy in the US Army Physical Fitness Test, which involves sit-ups, push-ups and a timed 2-mile (3.2 kilometre) run. By three years after delivery, 75 per cent matched their pre-pregnancy scores.
The soldiers’ sit-up abilities and running times declined the most. “For push-ups, it’s relatively easy to retrain your shoulders and pecs, but sit-ups are harder because your abdominal muscles are really stretched during pregnancy,” says Wendy Brown at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “It can take a long time – if ever – for them to get back to how they were before.”
The women’s running times probably slowed because it takes a while to shed excess pregnancy weight, says Brown. They were carrying 2 extra kilograms on average when weighed six months after giving birth compared with pre-pregnancy.
In the general population, lifestyle factors like lack of time to exercise, disrupted sleep and negative self-image have also been found to hamper new mothers’ fitness recovery, the study authors note. “[These] factors are more nuanced but likely as impactful as the physical changes of pregnancy,” they write.
Getting fit before becoming pregnant and staying active during pregnancy help women to regain their fitness faster after their babies are born, says Brown, who recently co‑authored the Australian government’s exercise recommendations for people who are pregnant.
She advises doing up to 5 hours of moderate intensity or 2.5 hours of vigorous intensity activity per week plus regular muscle strengthening exercises for as long as possible while pregnant. “Women sometimes worry that vigorous exercise might harm their baby, but we found you can basically carry on doing anything you want to do as long as it’s comfortable,” she says.
Journal reference: PLoS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0255248
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