Expert Interview Series: Kathleen Donahoe of Oh Baby! Fitness

By Aaron Eisberg

Kathleen Donahoe is the co-owner of Oh Baby! Fitness and the nation's leading educator on pre and postnatal fitness.

We recently asked Kathleen about the benefits of exercise during and after pregnancy and got her advice for safe and effective ways for expectant moms to get fit. Here's what she had to say:

Can you share your story? What brought you to co-founding Oh Baby! Fitness?

I had worked as a personal trainer for postpartum women and then moved to Atlanta when Oh Baby! Fitness was being started by my co-owner Clare Schexnyder. I was the first instructor she hired, and I absolutely fell in love with training pregnant women and new moms in group fitness classes. I worked my way up through the company, co-authoring our pre/postnatal fitness certification and creating three fitness apps while also earning my MBA. I came on as co-owner in 2012. I spend most of my days now teaching live certification workshops and helping our Oh Baby! Fitness licensees teach our classes in their area.

What are some of the frustrations Oh Baby! Fitness hopes to address for new and expectant mothers? What challenges are they facing when it comes to meeting fitness goals?

It's hard for pregnant women and new moms to find certified trainers that know the science of perinatal fitness and how to address their specific needs. There is SO much that happens during the perinatal period, and exercise can help manage a lot of it, but a trainer needs to know what he/she is doing. We've addressed that by creating a national pre/postnatal fitness certification that is recognized by AFAA, ACE, NASM and ACSM for continuing education credits, to try and get as many knowledgeable trainers in the field as possible.

The perinatal period can be a scary time for women - so much about growing a baby is out of a woman's control! But exercise is something she can do, and it can help alleviate many of the most common pregnancy complaints - back pain, pelvic pain, insomnia, swelling, constipation. Our training helps instructors know HOW to modify exercises for pre/postnatal clients, and also, most importantly, how to talk to moms about WHY they're making modifications.

What are the benefits of regular exercise to women who are pregnant or who recently had a baby? What areas specifically should they be focusing on in their routines?

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends pregnant women exercise on most, if not ALL days of the week, and has changed its recommendations to state that postpartum women can return to exercise even sooner than before. Exercise is shown to contribute to quicker labors with less need for pain medication, decreases the chance of developing gestational diabetes, and (most important to many of our clients)- women who exercise have smarter babies who are better self soothers.

In terms of what KIND of exercise, Oh Baby! Fitness focuses on the core box - specifically pelvic floor and transverse abdominal work. It is incredibly important for this population. Working these muscles correctly will not only help decrease back pain but will also help women dramatically during the pushing stage of labor. A strong pelvic floor and transverse abdominals can also lead to quicker recovery after childbirth.

How do you approach developing fitness classes for new and expectant mothers? What special concerns do you need to consider?

First and foremost we follow the latest ACOG recommendations for perinatal exercise. Then, we take into account what stage of pregnancy (or postpartum) a client is in - a woman who is 10 weeks pregnant needs to be programmed for just as specifically as a woman approaching her due date. We take into account the role of the hormone relaxin, how to train the pelvic floor and abdominals and how to specially work the muscles that become stretched and weakened during pregnancy (upper back and hamstrings). We also train our instructors to modify each class to the specific concerns of the clients in class that day. The body changes so much during pregnancy, and each client needs exercises tailored to what their body is doing that week. For example, if one client complains of back pain, we'll lead the class through a cat-cow stretch, saying this is a great yoga pose that can help take the pressure off the spine by using gravity. We encourage Moms to do these exercises at home. Clients learn which exercises are best for helping them feel better and also how exercises other targeted exercises (lunges, squats, wall sits) will help strengthen the body for labor and quick recovery.

What are the potential risks to women who are expecting when working out? What should staffs at fitness centers be doing to educate pregnant women about safe exercise routines?

ACOG's rule is, if you've exercised before becoming pregnant, you can continue to exercise at the same level and increase throughout pregnancy. If you've never exercised before, it's time to get started gradually, with a certified instructor. All clients should check with their doctor before starting an exercise program.

Pregnant woman are not that different than a normal population, but heart rate is not as reliable an indicator of effort has it would be for a normal client. Instead, ACOG recommends pregnant clients use the "talk test" (being able to talk comfortably) as the best gauge for a safe workout. It's why we encourage conversation during our classes between clients. Conversation also promotes community building - another extremely important part of pre/postnatal fitness classes. Women are making friends and gaining confidence about being Moms. We find exercise and talking go together perfectly!

How can gyms and fitness centers make themselves more appealing to new and expectant mothers?

Having certified perinatal fitness trainers on staff and offering pregnancy or mom & baby classes is so important. It's also appealing to offer child care, as well as changing stations in the locker rooms.

What have you found turns off this demographic from visiting a traditional gym?

When a woman gets pregnant, she might not know what exercise is safe. Many newly pregnant women cancel their gym membership immediately. Having someone on staff who is trained to teach perinatal fitness or offering an Oh Baby! Fitness class is the best way to keep these women in the fold. Exercise is the BEST thing pregnant women can do for themselves and their babies.

Gyms should congratulate women on their pregnancy and let them know they're ready to include them in classes and make the modifications necessary to keep exercise safe but challenging.

What has been the reception of moms and expectant moms to your programs? Why do you think they seek you out?

Women love being in our classes and around other moms. In our classes they are able to get a great workout by a certified instructor while also making friends - two things that are so important to this population.

What are some of the more exciting trends or innovations in fitness technology you're following right now? What interests you about them?

The ability of the internet to connect normal people with fitness experts is SO great - you can workout with the best trainers in the world!

Whether you're a new mom or just someone wanting to improve your health and wellness, download the Accuro Health App to better track your workouts and make sure you're hitting your fitness goals.

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