Being pregnant sometimes feels like one big departure from regular life. Things I never thought about are now a big deal (what position I sleep in, taking a multivitamin, putting on my shoes) and things that once mattered a lot, don’t. I’ve had a lot of mental shifts in the past 6 months, and one of the biggest ones is exercise.
I’m the first to admit that except for a brief stint in college when I exercised mainly to deal with depression and anxiety (did you know that 30 minutes of cardio a day is oftentimes more effective than an antidepressant?), I have always been an “exercise to look good” type of person. And although I’m glad I’ve remained active, I now think that my original approach was wrong. I also have a hunch that the popular reason for exercise (at least in our culture) doesn’t seem to be providing the motivation most of us need. (Think fitness centers packed in January and deserted by Valentine’s Day.)
After a lot of reading and personal experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that “exercising to look good” doesn’t seem to work as well as we’d like. Many people find that an increase in exercise leads to an increase in hunger and they eat the extra calories they work so hard to burn off. Others choose workouts geared towards looks only (think body builders) that don’t actually give them functional strength–just silly muscles designed to bulge when they point towards the gym. Others get highly motivated for a few days, then completely burn out after a few days of sore muscles. And some people think that it has to be all or nothing–a 6 mile run or it’s not worth lacing up your shoes.
(BTW, I am 100% not knocking anyone who has made exercise a part of their life for any reason–there are so many people who don’t do it, that any motivation that gets your heart pumping is well worth the effort.)
Before I got pregnant I was regularly working out to the point of exhaustion, or nausea, or both. Some days that was fun. Some days it wasn’t. But that changed immediately upon seeing that second pink line. I didn’t know what was safe and felt nervous going to my regular classes. In the early weeks of my first trimester I read a popular book that suggested avoiding exercise altogether because regardless of how hard the bump and I worked out I would a.) Still gain weight, and b.) still look terrible in workout clothes. For a few weeks of extreme sickness I enjoyed this philosophy, because frankly I could barely shower, so exercise seemed to be off the menu. But that all changed the first day I got in a pool.
I was on a research trip to gather info for my dad’s upcoming book in The Walk Series (shameless plug!). I can’t remember what city we were in but I woke up early one morning and went to the hotel pool. It was small, but empty, and I decided to break my exercise fast by doing some water aerobics moves I’d learned in my one ill-fated attempt at a prenatal water aerobics class (it was basically an hour of one participant complaining about foot cramps and the rest of us having to do foot stretches with her). I didn’t have music or a clock, but I decided to move as long as felt good. When I got out of the pool it had been 45 minutes and I experienced one of the least nauseating days I had in about 3 months.
At that point swimming became non-negotiable. It is the half hour a day that I am weightless, cold, and moving without things aching. I don’t swim very fast or well (just ask the well-meaning lifeguards who have tried to offer me swimming tips). Some days I dread it like you wouldn’t believe. My hair and skin hate it, my goggles always fog up, and I despise seeing band-aids at the bottom of the pool after the facility has had a swim meet. And here’s the weird part–despite my daily exercise, I just keep gaining weight. Lots of it. Most of it centered around my abdomen but also appearing in my breasts, butt, thighs and arms.
And still I go!
In other words, for the first time in my life I am really, truly exercising for a reason that does not involve vanity. I am exercising because it improves my mood. Because I enjoy feeling cold and weightless, and the happy wriggles of what I’m assuming is a half-fish baby. I am exercising to stave off gestational diabetes and to give myself a chance to unwind, and to entertain the lifeguards with my valiant attempts to swim laps with my gigantic maternity swimsuit never quite cooperating.
And I’m wondering, can I take this new mentality with me post-baby? Can I exercise because it feels good and makes me happy? Can I give up bootcamps and workout that leave me exhausted rather than energized? We are made to move–absolutely–I’m just wondering if a lot of us have lost sight of the fact that it is supposed to be enjoyable, not punishing. That we are supposed to feel our blood pumping and our breath moving through our body–but in a way that feels good to us. Long walks. Stretching. Bike riding. Those are things that feel good to me–but there are about a million different things that could feel good to you.
Am I alone on this? Does anyone else exercise for a reason other than burning calories? I’d love to hear your thoughts.