Fitness fanatic Lea-Ann Ellison caused a social media storm by posting pictures of herself on Facebook lifting weights just two weeks before she is due to give birth. The 35-year-old from Los Angeles is a fan of gruelling CrossFit circuit, the gut-busting, high intensity interval training workout trend that critics dismiss as too challenging for a woman who is eight and a half months pregnant. The upper workout limit of most heavily pregnant women is, after all, a relaxing yoga session, a brisk walk or a gentle swim.
Yet Ellison argues her approach is not harmful and says she was simply trying to stay in shape during pregnancy. “After the birth of my second child, I knew I needed to step it up big time,” she says. “I loved being a Mom but I wanted to be a HOT Mom.” She insists she was not putting her baby at risk by lifting barbells and squatting with kettlebells, but can she really be right?
Surprisingly, experts think that someone as obviously super-fit as Ellison can benefit from keeping up their regime during pregnancy. What’s risky, they say, is starting to exercise heavily from scratch when you have a substantial bump. “Countless research suggests that those following an exercise routine make healthier nutritional choices and therefore support the growth of a healthy baby,” says Steve Mellor, head of personal training at Freedom2Train.
Many women wrongly believe exercise can damage an unborn child by starving it of blood and oxygen. In fact, a woman's heart pumps more blood than normal to ensure the foetus is not deprived when she works out. In a study of 150,000 pregnant women conducted at the University of St Louis a few years ago, researchers concluded that women who routinely worked out hard before pregnancy, should continue, avoiding only "contact sports, scuba diving, or other activities that might possibly cause abdominal distress". Launching into extreme workouts is strongly ill-advised for pregnant women, but those who are used to them can continue with a certain amount of resistance work and circuits, findings suggest.
Mellor agrees, saying Ellison is a case in point. “If this woman is a regular Crossfitter then she is doing be right thing by keeping training,” he says. “Imagine the psychological impact of suddenly stopping exercise for 9 months coupled with the reduced feeling of wellbeing, depression and reduction in feel-good endorphins.” What’s more, says Mellor, if you are used to tough circuits, then the fitness benefits are significant during and after pregnancy. “The functional movements at the cornerstone of all Crossfit sessions will help develop the body to be strong, robust and fit for purpose when the baby arrives,” he says.
It’s all a far cry from the advice to pregnant women 30 years ago that a gentle stroll was their physical limit and they should cover no more than a mile a day. Now researchers have confirmed activity is not only safe, but beneficial, and more evidence is emerging all the time. German researchers have even suggested that runners who keep up their favourite activity while pregnant may enhance brain development of the growing foetus.
Even if you did not exercise beforehand, there is no excuse not to start in pregnancy provided you get the green light from doctors and make sure the first step is "moderate, non-weight-bearing activities, such as brisk walking, swimming, or cycling”, says Louise Sutton, head of the Carnegie Centre for Sports Performance at Leeds Metropolitan University. Understandably, exercisers are urged to be extra-cautious during pregnancy. Not every type of workout is safe and guidelines set by the American College of Gynaecologists (ACOG), which are also followed in the UK, suggest jerky, high-impact movements (which occur in sports such as squash or netball) should be avoided, especially in the second and third trimesters. Activities in low- or high-oxygen environments (skiing and scuba diving) should also be left until after birth.