Pregnancy is known to put stress on many parts of the body, including the heart, lungs and joints. But little research has been done to assess the long-term effects of pregnancy on people’s physical fitness.
David DeGroot of Martin Army Community Hospital in Georgia studied the impact of pregnancy on the physical condition of 460 women who became pregnant while in the army. The results are published in Plos One magazine.
Before becoming pregnant, women had high levels of physical fitness as a requirement for being active soldiers. They continued modified physical training during pregnancy and most returned to regular training within 12 weeks after delivery.
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Even with this dedicated training, many of the women found it difficult to regain their physical fitness.
A year after delivery, only 30% achieved the same score they had before pregnancy on the US Army Physical Fitness Test. The test involves sit-ups, crunches and a timed 3.2km run.
However, three years after delivery, 75% of the pre-pregnancy results matched their scores.
The soldiers’ abdominal skills and running times were the ones that declined the most. “For crunches, it’s relatively easy to retrain the shoulders and pectorals, but the sit-ups are more difficult because the abdominal muscles are really stretched during pregnancy.” It may take a long time for them to go back to the way they were.
Women’s running times have probably gotten worse because it takes time to lose excess weight during pregnancy. Women typically weighed an extra 2 kilos six months after giving birth compared to their pre-pregnancy weight.
In the general population, factors such as lack of time to exercise, little sleep and low self-esteem are also found in the difficulty of regaining fitness for new mothers, note the study authors.
Getting fit before you get pregnant and staying active during pregnancy helps women regain fitness more quickly after their babies are born, say the authors.
You are advised to do up to 5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise or 2.5 hours of vigorous-intensity activity per week. Adding regular muscle-building exercises for as long as possible while pregnant.
“Women sometimes worry that intense exercise could harm their baby. But we’ve found that basically they can keep doing whatever they want as long as it’s comfortable.”
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