Given all the mixed messages we’re met with, it’s easy to be confused. Let fitness expert and mum Libby Babet set your worried mind at ease...
It was the gorgeous, feel-good cherry on top of an already phenomenal story, as Serena Williams power-served her way to a seventh Australian Open Grand Slam title in 2017. Eight weeks pregnant (with daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Junior, now 4)? No big deal.
But – setting aside her obvious GOAT tennis prowess – is superwoman Serena the norm? Even if you’re not too nauseous or exhausted during IVF or early pregnancy to loathe the idea of exercise at all, how can you be sure your regime isn’t putting your chances of a healthy baby at risk? Sydney-based trainer and exercise expert for The Biggest Loser, Libby Babet, knows first-hand the fertility/fitness juggle-turned-struggle, having coached clients during her own IVF journey and first pregnancy several years ago. “Exercise is so important when it comes to taking care of your physical wellbeing, and it’s definitely beneficial to fertility to have a healthy body weight, but exercise and IVF can be a delicate balance,” says Libby, who is currently 26 weeks pregnant with her second child. “The advice I give varies person to person, but it’s generally a better idea to spend time getting fitter and healthier before starting IVF. That way, there’s some room to really ease off exercise as you go through the process.”
Genea Fertility Specialist Dr Rashi Kalra agrees that high impact cardio exercise are not a good idea during fertility treatment. “There is also some evidence that moderate exercise benefits fertility treatment. High intensity and high frequency exercise may adversely impact fertility. Generally I advise women going through fertility treatment to undertake exercise that they can continue into pregnancy, ideally until the third trimester.”
“ We now understand that being pregnant is not a physical disability – for most of the pregnancy anyway – but you don’t want to push your maximum heart rate either. Keep it moderate. ”
– Libby Babet
The secret, Libby notes, is to keep things light and easy. “Think walking, prenatal yoga, Tai Chi, lightweight toning sessions that offer stress relief without putting too much strain on the body, like Pilates and bodyweight strength work, and light stretching.” It’s also just as important to know what to skip. “I don’t recommend high impact cardio, heavy weight training, hanging exercises like chin-ups, running, or HIIT sessions during IVF. It’s a good excuse to say goodbye to burpees and squat jumps for a while. The same with deep core work. A lot of regular Pilates and yoga classes focus on this, so make sure you’re attending a studio led by experts experienced in the space of fertility, and pre- and post-natal.” Dance classes are great, she says, provided they’re focused more on the feel-good factor than burning calories through high impact jumping. “And remember, there are also certain stages of IVF, like egg retrieval, when you may need to opt out of exercise completely or simply take lots of gentle walks in the great outdoors to optimise your chances of success.”
The theme of gentle and self-nurturing exercise features heavily in her first trimester exercise advice, too. If you’re free of complications and your doctor gives the thumbs up, you can keep doing whatever you were enjoying before falling pregnant, a la Serena, she says. Just be sure to avoid deep or weighted rotation exercises, deep core work (as with the Pilates and yoga note above), and anything really high intensity that has you gasping for air or overheating. “We now understand that being pregnant is not a physical disability – for most of the pregnancy anyway – but you should still be able to carry on a bit of a conversation with someone while you work out. You don’t want to push your maximum heart rate either. Keep it moderate”, says Libby. In fact, Dr Kalra explains that there’s evidence of the benefit of exercise in pregnancy. “According to RANZCOG, the Australian and NZ College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, there are many benefits to be gained from regular exercise during pregnancy, such as prevention of excess weight gain, reduction of gestational diabetes risk and psychological well being.
“There is no evidence that exercise is harmful to the woman or the baby. Exercise in pregnancy should focus on aerobic and strengthening exercises.”
Dr Kalra’s recommendations for exercise during pregnancy:
- include a gradual warm-up and slow and sustained cool-down with each session
- avoid exercising in high temperatures and humidity, ensure adequate hydration and wear loose-fitting clothing
- avoid activities with the possibility of falling (i.e. horseriding, skiing) or impact trauma to the abdomen (i.e. certain team sport games)”
If you’re feeling utterly shattered or sick (ah, the joys of Trimester One), very gentle exercise – much as you might not feel like it – has been proven to take the edge off. “A quick snack followed by a walk outdoors can really help you feel better and more energetic throughout the morning. It’s important not to overdo it if you’re feeling average, but exercise is critical to a healthy pregnancy, so do what you can. I always have a focus on walking, swimming, and gentle mat-based toning during this time, just as you’d do in the lead-up to and during IVF”, says Libby.
As for those Olympians we’ve seen competing with baby bumps, it’s important to remember that they’re absolutely the exception. “I admit, I’m probably in this category given I’m now almost 26 weeks pregnant and still teaching – which in my business, means fully participating – in a range of high intensity classes,” says Libby. “But I know my body and its limits really well from operating at a high level for a very long time and journeying through one pregnancy in this industry already. I use my Apple Watch to keep track of my heart rate, I avoid deep twists and heavy weights, I take lower impact options where I need to, and I know exactly what to swap core work for. I watch my balance and I shorten my lunges and warm up, cool down and supplement like an athlete. So please, don’t look at an elite athlete, runner or instructor and think if they’re doing it, it must be safe. They’re professionals in their space, and that means they know their limits.”
Exercise, like eating well, massages and hugging your loved ones, is one of those glorious things in life that makes us feel amazing. But as with anything, too much of a good thing can start to cause harm. “When it comes to making babies, don’t overdo it,” says Libby. “Just keep moving, seek out prenatal training experts, eat whole foods and just walk, walk, walk.”
DOING IVF? Try these:
- Prenatal yoga
- Tai Chi
- Toning (using bodyweight or light weights only)
- Light stretching
But avoid: High impact cardio, heavy weights, hanging exercises, running, non-prenatal yoga, deep core work.
IN YOUR FIRST TRIMESTER? Try these:
- Mat-based toning
- Prenatal yoga
- Prenatal Pilates
But avoid: Very high impact cardio or bouncing, weighted rotation exercises, deep core work, anything that may cause overheating, such as hot yoga.