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Fit for a new life

Staying active during your pregnancy has benefits that can pay off during childbirth.

Published May 2, 2006

Within weeks of running the Macau marathon, I was audibly breathing while hoofing it up two flights of steps. Talk about a rapid decline in fitness: Welcome to pregnancy.

Last year was a stellar sports year for me. I outrigged (that's the Hawaiian canoeing sport where an ama, or counter-weight, is set parallel to the canoe) in Australia and Hawaii against the best in the world; won international races in dragon boating (a Chinese 20-person rowing sport); and packed in a marathon (just before getting pregnant) in four hours.

Then suddenly I became a couch potato - slumped over my computer at work, dreaming of coffee and sneaking home by 3 p.m. for a long, long nap under a pile of blankets.

There were plenty of people who told me that this was not only natural, it was an expected part of expecting.

But is it? After a week or so of the slug routine, I forced myself to exercise - walking everywhere. Sure, when I was genuinely fatigued, I conked out with the remote control in hand. But every day I walked. And during my first trimester, I quickly learned that mild exercise countered fatigue even before the much talked about "bloom'' of the second trimester that promises renewed energy.

I've now got a small bump and though I've hung up my running shoes, I've got a built in flotation device (just kidding!) so I'm paddling to my heart's content on weekends. It's the perfect sport for a pregnant woman: My heart rate stays under 130 beats per minute - I wear a heart monitor and simply slow my paddling and admire the view if I need to drop the beat. If I huli (flip the canoe), it's about a 6-inch drop to the water.

I'm not jarring my joints. I'm careful not to crunch the little one as I paddle, and I'm now always on the water with a partner instead of taking solo runs.

Best of all, I'm in the sun, in the sea breeze and don't feel as if I can't do something - the naysayers of life are bad for your mental well-being.

I've also upped my yoga practice, and its health benefits are endless. My teachers are aware of my impending motherhood, so they adjust my poses when necessary to keep it safe for me and my baby. I'm a huge proponent of yoga not because it makes you flexible but because it makes you mentally strong.

Yogic breathing is the ultimate medicine for pain. I'll need it, and I'm sure it works.

Here's why I'll need it. I can deliver in a public hospital for free (as a local taxpayer, all our medical care is either free or for a pittance - and the top rate for taxation is 15 percent). But because of that, the local doctors are loath to medicate with even inexpensive extras such as epidurals. I'm not choosing a natural childbirth; it has been chosen for me. So instead of drugs, I'll be using yogic breathing as a form of pain control.

Here's why I know it works. Last June, while practicing sea changes (where one jumps off a support boat into the water and then boards a moving outrigger so paddlers can be switched in a long-distance race), I accidentally squashed a jellyfish and its 4-foot-long tentacles between my belly and the canoe as I flipped into the boat. The pain was a cross between about 1,000 bee stings and the feeling you have when someone slaps you on a really bad sunburn - and as the hours ticked by it got worse.

The next day I was as bloated as if I were pregnant, and scarred with 20-inch-long, 5-inch-wide slash marks. When I went to the hospital, doctors first marveled over the extent of the scarring and then said: It's amazing you didn't have a heart attack.

No it wasn't. On the night of the jellyfish love-fest, when lying on the couch and feeling tears of pain stream down my face, I started to take deep breaths, as one does in yoga, and I visualized one of my favorite hikes in the Himalayas of Tibet. Between deep, controlled intakes of pain-soothing air, I took John, my husband, on this walk, describing every detail. My pulse and breathing slowed. John had put the heart monitor on me to make sure my heart rate didn't exceed 180, which would have necessitated a visit to the hospital.

The breathing and the visual slowly brought the rate down and medicated the pain.

The lesson: Breathing as pain control works. The practice: yoga. Couple that with a three-times-a-week aerobic practice, and you've got preventative medicine on hand.

I'm curious to see what will be worse: natural childbirth, in which pangs notoriously come in waves and ultimately wash out a baby, or the constant pain of a body-scarring jellyfish sting. I think I know the answer: I'll keep you posted.

Former St. Petersburg Times staffer Lara Wozniak is a journalist in Hong Kong. Her baby is due Aug. 31.

[Last modified May 2, 2006, 06:32:15]

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