Pregnant and marathon-ready at 39 weeks: A woman's unique fitness goals - Hindustan Times
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The Art of Science and Fitness | Pregnant and marathon-ready at 39 weeks: A woman's unique fitness goals

Dec 19, 2023 08:00 AM IST

An alarming decline in fitness, especially among younger generations, prompts a call for prioritising physical activity for pregnant women and their children

“Hi, Doc! I want to run a full marathon but I’m 39 weeks pregnant. I’m pumped about the idea of running a full marathon. Can I please start training in March instead of January? If not, I’ll probably just join the programme from the stage it is in.”

Deepika Chillar's fitness routine(Anirudh Choudhary.) PREMIUM
Deepika Chillar's fitness routine(Anirudh Choudhary.)

About a month back I mentioned on social media that everyone should attempt running a full marathon at least once in their life, but only after training for 9-12 months. My reason is that on this journey, beyond just a physical achievement, there will be plenty of lessons about life. A lot of people showed interest in that idea. As is the tradition on social media today, some didn’t miss the opportunity to call me a dictator, but there were lots of them who requested me to mentor them. So, when I finally announced the ‘42 in 9’ marathon mentoring programme, Deepika Chhillar sent me the above message.

This is even more relevant now as recently, Smriti Irani, the Union women and child development minister, addressed the issue of menstrual hygiene policies in the country. Responding to a question in Rajya Sabha, she said “…menstruation cycle is not a handicap, it’s a natural part of women’s life journey…", remarking that there is no need for a ‘paid leave’ policy for women. My take on women's specific physiology has been that women need to empower themselves. For that, they don’t need any favours from anyone else, exactly the way Deepika demonstrated.

It is the society that tells women what they are capable of – or not – doing throughout their lives. One could argue that earlier generations of women used to be active till late in their pregnancies, so what’s so unique here? In today’s world, women are choosing to have pregnancies later, and there are usually only one or two children, there is a lot of premium attached to pregnancies. Unfortunately, it may be more for the health and well-being of the ‘precious’ child than the mother. Parents and in-laws are both equally nervous and the best advice that they can come up with is not to move much, not that many of the to-be-mothers tend to exercise much to even begin with.

At the start of this year, I spoke about scientific evidence on the physiological benefits of pregnant women being active during and post-pregnancy. But what about the benefits for the children?

How physical activity in pregnancy leads to active kids

A 2019 study published in The International Journal of Behavioral Nutritional and Physical Activity compared the physical activity of 530 six-year-olds to their mothers in Southampton, UK. In this study titled ‘The association between maternal-child physical activity levels at the transition to formal schooling’, physical activity was measured by using accelerometry for up to seven days. More active mothers had more active six-year-olds, and this association was similar for both girls and boys and was stronger during the weekends. For every ten minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity that a mother did, her child was active for five extra minutes as compared to children of inactive mothers.

In two early studies published in the journal, Paediatrics and BMC Health in 2014, the same associations were found in the physical activity of four and five-year-old children as compared to their mothers. Fascinatingly, four-year-olds showed an even stronger association with the physical activity of their mothers as compared to the six-year-olds. Effectively, the association of children being more active was stronger when they spent more time with their mothers, and not at school, as children six years and older are spending full days at school and are fully engrossed with activities in school. On the other hand, the younger ones are affected a lot more by their mother's physical activity as they are spending more time with her.

This becomes even more relevant because in the 2014 studies, out of the 1,267 students from class 1, 29% of boys and 47% of girls aged between five-six years already weren’t meeting physical activity guidelines, i.e. an hour per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. If that is the situation already at this young age, it is bound to almost get worse.

Now, one could argue that these are UK statistics and outdated by a decade. But when my younger son was playing in an under-7 cricket tournament during the winter season of 2012-2013, what shocked me was the fitness of children in this age group. What was even more appalling was how their movement was sloppy and lethargic. It seemed as if almost all of them had potato chips and beverages of all kinds while travelling in their air-conditioned school buses or luxurious cars.

What I witnessed was worse than the statistics quoted in the studies. When I have three generations in my consultation room, the youngest of the lot, those under 18, are the most unfit and are unable to properly do a squat. Then there are folks in their 30-50s. They are just getting by. The fittest are the grandparents in the room. Even if they complain about knee pains, they happily squat all the way down, and if they come to me with back pains, they can easily bend forward and touch their toes. When I praise them for it, most of them are astonished as to why that’s such a big deal. “Pain shouldn’t stop us from doing these basic movements”.

A personal journey of fitness in pregnancy

Coming back to physically active mothers during their pregnancy and soon after delivery. Re-enter Deepika, who belongs to the first batch (2014-2015) of Young India Fellows at Ashoka University while I was the director of sports there. She had joined us for a run at India Gate that the sports department organised for the students.

Deepika has had back-to-back academic interviews as she wraps up her PhD in ‘organisational purpose and culture’ from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She confides, “It has been challenging but humanising to balance intense academic interviews with pregnancy. It made me realise there is so much the human body and mind is capable of! And there is so much more to life than one's career — when I saw some of my friends focus on securing the ‘best job’ and lose their minds, haha!”

On being asked if she was comfortable with me mentioning her by name, she said, “I think it’s time to get over the fear of being seen as weak through the journey of motherhood. I struggled with it but then overcame it and chose to reveal the pregnancy to my potential employers! I believe that it serves as a good filter to identify firms with better cultural values — something I study passionately in my research — and starts a relationship of trust between two entities.”

So why was it that Deepika responded to my idea that everyone should be attempting a full marathon in their lifetimes?

“I’ve seen my health deteriorate this past year because of limited exercise owing to a recurring sore ankle. So the first reason was that — since I got to rest quite a bit during the pregnancy and my ankle might have healed — I’d like to get back in shape. A bigger reason is that in India, we are often used to seeing moms who don’t prioritise their health. I don’t want to be among those moms. And if film stars and models can get back in shape, so can all of us with the right support! A child should never be the reason to let our bodies go down the drain.”

“I think that we all need to first prioritise ourselves and our own health, before being a good partner, parent, child or employee,” Deepika added. “This might sound like a selfish reason, but if I have learnt anything from my military dad, Colonel Satbir Singh Chhillar, if one wants to be an asset to society, it begins with taking care of one’s physical and mental health! He has always told me that in their profession – everything revolves around fitness. ‘Jab khud ke pairo pe khadde nai ho sakte toh dushman se kya ladoge? ’ (If you can’t stand on your own feet, then how will you fight against the enemy?) Whoever I am with physical fitness, is because of his teachings in our childhood: In fact, my brother, Lt Cdr Devender Chhillar, joined the navy because it offered him a work life where he could be on his feet most of the day while serving the nation. I wish corporations would invest in their employees’ health like the military does — after all humans are the biggest assets to most firms.”

It made me wonder how Deepika was juggling with finishing her PhD work along with pregnancy, and that too in a foreign land. How could she even imagine starting to train for a marathon with an infant and looking for a job?

“My mom, Mrs Promilla Chhillar is with me — it’s because of her sacrifice to be away from her family and home and live with us for the last six months — providing me and the unborn baby with great nutrition — that I’m thinking of running marathons after delivery! She is the one who introduced me to the joys of badminton and bicycling! I’ve been fortunate to have a tremendously supportive partner and godlike parents and in-laws! Friends have been terrific as well. Women need partners, moms, dads, siblings, moms-in-law, and dads-in-law — all to pitch in! If they make sure they’re doing their part in raising the baby and encouraging moms to exercise, I’m sure many women would be thrilled to take the exercising road to recovery. It does take a village to raise a child, and in this modern world, our immediate family and friends have become our village.”

Even though Deepika isn’t old for pregnancy, 34 years isn’t early either. This is one tip she had for women planning on pregnancy in their late 20s and early 30s. “Girls who prioritise exercise, even moderately, shouldn’t have to worry about the biological clock. It’s a mental game and only when we are physically inactive, the general timelines that doctors suggest should worry us. This may seem like painting with a broad brush, but I see many of my friends who are younger and worried about their bio-clock but they don’t GOYA (Get Off Your Arse). They only khaya, peeya and soya. (eat, drink and sleep)”

What lessons would Deepika want to share with other women?

“Lesson 1: Listen to your body. It always knows more than we credit it for.”

“Lesson 2: Don’t be scared – if you haven’t fallen or tripped while biking or jogging in the last 20+ years, why would you suddenly fall when you’re pregnant? It doesn’t make sense to exercise caution unnecessarily unless the doctor says it’s a high-risk activity. Of course, if their doctor says one is at risk, then they should avoid exercising, otherwise, it’s a no-brainer that what’s good for us pre-pregnancy is good for us during and post.”

Deepika sums it all up well. “Post-pregnancy, I’m told that moms would need to give it their all. During pre-pregnancy, I witnessed it takes a healthy body to create a healthy mindset. Likewise, I imagine it might take a healthy mind to make way for a healthy body. Prioritising one’s health along with the newborn’s will go a long way. After all, babies emulate what they see and not what they’re told as you rightly pointed out, Doc! ”

We need more women who are ready to take on the fitness challenge, no matter what is thrown at them. After all, they can help the next generation through what they do now, rather than waiting for anyone else to tell them what to do. Rather than treating ‘run-like-a-girl’ as a derogatory phrase, it should become a motivation for one and all, because even those four and six-year-old boys, will soon enough become active men, all courtesy of their active moms. Those active girls too will be able to hold their own later on in life because of what their mothers did when they were pregnant with them. We need a lot more Deepikas in this world.

Keep miling and smiling.

Dr Rajat Chauhan (drrajatchauhan.com) is the author of The Pain Handbook: A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain; MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days

He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.

The views expressed are personal

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