Many pregnant women who head to the gym experience being shamed by strangers who believe they are “harming their baby”.
And expectant mums who document their workouts on Instagram open themselves up to more criticism.
Fitness blogger Sophie Guidolin was shamed for weight lifting while pregnant and personal trainer, Chontel Duncan, was told she was “damaging” her baby.
But as Janet Fyle, the Royal College of Midwives’ (RCM) professional policy advisor, puts it: “Shame on those people that shame these pregnant women.”
Fyle told The Huffington Post UK there is “nothing wrong” with exercising while pregnant, adding: “When you are pregnant, you are not ill. Our population think it is an illness, when it isn’t.”
Alison Whitehouse, 29, mum to 20-month-old Rupert, said: “Someone in the gym said to me: ‘Do you know what you’re doing? Don’t you think you’re too big to workout?’”
Mum-of-one and Actively Balanced blogger Alison Whitehouse, 29, from London, has firsthand experience of being shamed while working out.
She explained: “Someone in the gym said to me: ‘Do you know what you’re doing? Don’t you think you’re too big to workout?’”
“The ‘advice’ I heard ranged from: ‘Do you think you should be doing that?’, ‘Just be careful,’ and even ‘I don’t think you should be doing that anymore’.”
Mum-of-two Stephanie Baroni, 33, from the US, overheard someone criticise her for working out while pregnant.
“No one directly shamed me to my face,” she explained. “It was only talk that I heard behind my back.”
“[The woman’s] words and speculation really hurt my feelings, especially since we lived in such a small community.
“It made me wonder who else she might have expressed these feelings to and if other people in the community felt this way, but never said anything.”
Baroni worked out three times a week while pregnant, ate in moderation and got her doctor’s approval for her fitness schedule. Her goal was to not gain an “unnecessary” amount of weight, as she feels she did in her first pregnancy.
But more importantly for Baroni, working out wasn’t just about staying fit. She added: “I wasn’t only doing what was right for me physically, but to put me in a healthy state of mind.
“That was key for me and I have no regrets about how I did anything.”
Fyle confirms that exercise during pregnancy can be good for mental health, too, which has a positive knock-on effect on the body.
“One would think you should encourage women to exercise and do yoga,” she said. “The happy hormones that exercise releases enables women to think differently and positively, preparing the body for labour.
“When women go into labour, it exerts a physical price on your body,” Fyle added. “Women who have exercised during pregnancy will be much more prepared for the physical toll that birth has on the body.”
Baroni experienced the physical benefits of working out when she was in labour.
“I went through 48 hours of unmedicated ‘natural’ labour, finally giving in to a light dosage of pain reliever and then delivering in my 49th hour,” she said.
“I know that, without a doubt, my body could not have survived that length of labour without being as physically strong as I was. I can honestly say I had never felt stronger in my life than at the end of my pregnancy.
“Every squat, pushup, mile that I walked, it all came into play as I prepared to deliver my baby.”
Consultant surgeon, Dr Sally Norton, said there are more benefits to exercising during pregnancy than people realise.
“It improves heart health, reduces urinary incontinence and back pain and avoids excess weight gain and issues associated with diabetes of pregnancy,” she told HuffPost UK.
Whitehouse, who is mum to 20-month-old Rupert, said exercising was the only thing that kept her morning sickness at bay. She worked out by going to the gym and going on runs until she was eight months’ pregnant.
“I loved it,” she said. “Initially I couldn’t do much other than walking, but it was great to get outside and keep my nausea under control.
“Later on I added in more running and weights. I felt so strong and I loved seeing how my body changed.
“I practiced yoga regularly, which helped relieve tension in my lower back, reduced swelling in my ankles and genuinely made me love my body and bump.”
Due to their own experiences of hostile reactions both Whitehouse and Baroni believe there is a widespread taboo around exercising while pregnant and they believe this is due to a lack of knowledge about what is safe in pregnancy.
“Working out when pregnant is shamed or is a ‘taboo’ because the advice out there is so terrible,” said Whitehouse.
“A lot of mums-to-be don’t understand that you can workout, especially if you have worked out before. Yes of course you have to be careful, but it’s about listening to your body and adjusting where necessary.
“Luckily, now there are so many mums-to-be on social media advocating a healthier lifestyle, including working out when pregnant, but I think it will still take a while for the mainstream to catch up.”
Baroni agreed, adding: “Women are shamed because there is such a strong belief that women should not overexert themselves during pregnancy, that somehow pregnancy is a disability, and I don’t believe that it is.
“Sure, there are situations during pregnancy in which you cannot overexert yourself because of a medical condition, but if your pregnancy is normal and healthy, then I don’t see any reason why we can’t go on living a healthy active life if we feel like we have the energy and means to do so.”
Fyle said when pregnant women are working out, their body will know “what is sensible and what is not”, adding: “You should definitely not be discouraged from exercising.”
This is exactly how Baroni tailored her workouts.
“I was the pregnant woman who could hold a plank at 42 weeks, but it hurt like hell to do lunges, so listening to literally every part of my body was key,” she said.
“My body definitely spoke up if I was pushing my limits, and I knew it was important that I listened.”
Dr Norton said women should build up exercise gradually depending on their initial fitness levels – as they would do if they weren’t pregnant.
“Moderate intensity, relatively low impact exercise is recommended – including light strength exercises,” she added.
Fyle said “shaming” of women who work out will only stop if we start putting out a positive message about exercising during pregnancy.
“Women get shamed for so many things (breastfeeding, sitting on the tube), and it needs to stop,” she said. “They should be encouraged to exercise.
“It prepares their body for labour, and I’d tell them to ignore the shaming, the laughing and everything – those people don’t have the right information.
“All you need to do is ask your doctor or midwife, as well as trainers at the gym who will know what you can and can’t do.”