Jennifer Day's firm, round belly stuck out through her spandex workout gear as she completed an overhead squat.
First came the stares. Then the comments.
“People would come up to me and call me selfish while I was working out,” said the 32-year-old, who was about six months pregnant at the time. “That was really hard to hear because no one cares more about your body and your baby than you do.”
The comments didn't stop Day from exercising. She worked out and lifted weights throughout both of her pregnancies. Her boys are now five and 16 months.
And that's perfectly fine to do, said Dr. Rebecca Jacobi, an ob-gyn at the Methodist Physicians Clinic Women's Center in Omaha.
“The key is to listen to your body,” she said.
“Just like women are working longer during pregnancy, they are continuing to exercise, too, which is a great way to deal with stress and just feel better,” Jacobi said.
She said if women enjoy running, they might run a little less. If they enjoy lifting, they might lift lighter weights.
“Squatting, dead lifting and pressing are some of the best moves to prepare a woman's body for labor and delivery,” said Day, who is a certified CrossFit coach at CrossFit Artis near 132nd and B Streets in Omaha. “We encourage women to keep doing what they are doing and just cut back a little or modify.”
More women like Day are trying to bust the myth that women should be couch-bound for nine months while pregnant.
Several women have received national attention for posting pictures on social media of themselves pregnant and exercising.
Lea-Ann Ellison of Los Angeles, Calif., is probably the most talked about CrossFit mom. When she posted a picture of herself on Facebook in September performing an overhead squat while 8½ months pregnant, she was called “selfish” and “stupid” and caused an uproar among those who believed she was injuring her unborn baby.
“The problem is that society has gotten to the point that we see pregnant women as fragile,” Day said. “Sure, there are women who are high risk and must take precautions, but for most women, it's OK to exercise, and it's extremely beneficial.”
Christine Conrad of Omaha back squatted 150 pounds on the day her baby was due. Though a lot of her gym friends couldn't believe she was still working out, they encouraged her and were inspired by her determination.
“I would always tell people, 'I'm pregnant, not handicapped,'" Conrad said. “I don't know how people can think women who work out while they're pregnant are selfish. If I was ever out of breath, I would stop and slow down. Instead of box jumps, I would do step-ups. I would never get overheated and I would drink a lot of water.”
And that's exactly what women who exercise while pregnant should do, Jacobi said.
“If you have been doing a high level of exercise for an extended period of time before you got pregnant, it is typically OK to continue,” she said. “If it hurts, don't do it. If you have pelvic pressure or pain or vaginal bleeding or you're contracting, don't do it or modify.”
Jacobi said many of her patients who are runners sometimes transition to an elliptical to avoid pounding the pavement.
Sara Garcia of Omaha modified her runs when she got closer to her due date in January. But the 32-year-old, who has completed 10 marathons, a dozen triathlons and a full Ironman race, couldn't imagine not exercising for nine months. She ran nearly every day, sometimes as much as 12 miles, while pregnant.
“Training is a part of my daily life and there was no reason to give it up while I was pregnant,” she said.
Garcia trained for the Marine Corps Marathon throughout her pregnancy and when she ran it, she was more than six months pregnant. “I listened to my body and quit when it was time,” at mile 16, she said.
Conrad, who works as a postpartum nurse in Omaha, gave birth to a healthy baby girl in October and believes lifting weights and working out through her pregnancy helped ease her labor and recovery.
“All of my pelvic muscles were so strong and my delivery was easy,” she said. “When I was released from the hospital I was home by 3 p.m. and out at a wedding that night. I wasn't on any narcotics.”
Conrad said she also believes exercising while pregnant helped her avoid postpartum depression.
Exercising while pregnant isn't only beneficial for the mothers.
For women who are pregnant, as little as 20 minutes of exercise three times per week can advance a newborn's brain activity, according to a recent study by University of Montreal researchers.
In the study, women in the active group were asked to exercise for a minimum of 60 minutes per week, they wound up exercising 117 minutes per week on average. For the sake of comparison, the women in the sedentary group averaged only 12 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
“We are optimistic that this will encourage women to change their health habits, given that the simple act of exercising during pregnancy could make a difference for their child's future,” Dave Ellemberg, a professor from the university's Department of Kinesiology said in a statement.
Jacobi said it's possible more women are exercising while pregnant because they are aware of healthy eating and the dangers of obesity. She said body changes can be really challenging for people, too.
Kelly Heine, 32 of Omaha, is pregnant with her first child and due in March. She exercised before she was pregnant but wanted to prepare her body as much as possible for labor.
“All of the women I have talked to who have worked out while pregnant said delivery and labor was so much better, and that's exactly what I want,” she said.
At a recent personal training session, Heine stretched, dead lifted a 35-pound barbell and squatted.
“I am not trying to lift more, I just want to stay active,” she said. “I am feeling good and I have the energy, so why not?”
This report includes information from the New York Times.