Finding Balance with Pregnancy & Postpartum Exercise: An Interview with Personal Trainer Sarah Gardocki

Tell me about yourself- how long have you been involved in fitness training and women’s health?

I started as a doula in 2005 after my second pregnancy. I did that and postpartum doula work. I never did finish childbirth education work. I didn’t start personal training until many years later. I was looking for things in birth that didn’t involve being on call. A random Google search about prenatal fitness didn’t really bring up much other than telling me that I should become a personal trainer, and I thought, “Well, I can do that!” It was pretty shortly after that that I went back to school. In that same career exploration I also found a health education degree program at the University of Cincinnati. I did the training and the health education degree at the same time, and the personal training was through the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Had you been involved in fitness and health prior to that personally, or was it something that just grew out of doula work?

I started working out after my first baby, and it was a really long process to go from the occasional 15 minute video to something I really have to carve time out of the week for.

I’m still struggling to do 15 minutes a day!

Well, the more experience you get with it, the older your kids get, the easier it gets, and you get to enjoy it more.

That’s good to know! That’s encouraging and hopeful for me! What sort of classes do you teach currently and where?

I do some independent training, and that is for anyone, not just pregnant women. For prenatal and postpartum classes, I teach at my studio, Sage Mama, in Cincinnati. Those have been a lot of fun! We used to keep the prenatal and the postpartum classes separate, but I have sort of moved away from that. I’ve learned that when you go from being pregnant to having the baby, the lines are sort of blurry! Even in my postpartum classes, I have had women who have come for pelvic floor and core issues that are 19 years postpartum. I like to have a few different options for women when I can!

What is one of the most important pieces of advice you would give to a woman wanting to stay healthy and fit during her pregnancy?

The first thing is building some strength in the core, the core players being mostly the abs, glutes, and the back. The abs tend to be the ones that need the first bit of attention, and it’s easy to do. Just adding in abdominal contractions, or isometric contractions. Because it is easy to add that to the day, I would love it if every woman would do it, even just a little bit. And staying active, whether it’s simply walking every day. Yoga is also very good because there are few instances where that is not ok for pregnant women.

I feel that is a common misconception about pregnancy: that you are not supposed to work your core and especially your abdominal muscles in pregnancy.

Yes, it is important to be aware of how to use and work those muscles in pregnancy, but keeping your abdominal wall strong keeps the baby in a better position. There is also some suggestion that you can have maybe a slightly faster labor. Of course, a workout is not the same as birth, but there is that sense of accomplishment you get when you are challenging yourself, and that all adds up for your self-efficacy.

How soon after having a baby is it OK for women to start exercising?

You can start strengthening your abdominal wall and your pelvic floor right away. Everything else is as you feel like you are ready. You may want to challenge yourself a little bit, maybe by starting by walking first, unless you have a reason you need to stay in bed, such as a tear. But you can still do Kegels and isometric contractions in bed until you can be up and walking. There is really no rush to get back to “Exercise exercise.” Maybe around 6 weeks, give or take, you can start with some corrective exercises, and that’s a really good opportunity to put yourself back together the right way, and then maybe make more progress if you have another goal in mind. You can really save yourself trouble by first taking the time to do some corrective work.

How should women prioritize exercise when they aren’t sleeping well and are taking care of a new baby?

Sleep, I always said, is the one thing you can’t do when the baby is awake. Everything else you can maybe do when baby is awake. You just have to take it day-by-day, and give up a little bit of that daily routine. Every day is different. Exercise can improve the quality of your sleep, but it can also be a stressor if you are feeling run down. So you need to be kind of intuitive about it. Ask yourself, how many days has it been since I’ve done something. How do I really feel today? When I do exercise, do I feel more rested the next day? But you can almost always at least get in 5 or 10 minutes, and then you can say you did something that day. If you had a particularly restless night, then it’s probably better to rest! You just need to be flexible and gentle with yourself in the beginning.

Do you have any tips for new moms wanting to “bounce back” after childbirth?

You might not ever look the same. A lot of that has to do with genetics. I encourage women to be motivated to exercise, and if your motivation is extrinsic in the beginning, that’s OK. There’s no rush, and no need to have high expectations. Just start by finding an exercise routine you like, and allow your healthiest looking body unfold. See what it looks like!

Yes, that is tricky. Letting go of your past self!

Exactly. But that’s sometimes what get’s people started! I emphasize to people that exercise will make you feel better overall, but if you have a goal you are looking for, like losing weight, and that is what gets you motivated, I am ok with that as a starting point.