A study (and personal experience) found that most expectant mums aren’t exercising enough. This mum is on a mission to change that through the power of water.
Years ago, during her second pregnancy, Malissa Sander was greeted by surprised looks when she shared her aquatic workout routine with fellow mums at the OBGYN clinic. “I was surprised to see how little fitness played a role in complementing a healthy and balanced approach towards pregnancy and postpartum recovery. I’ve come across women who have stopped exercising altogether during pregnancy. There were also others who experienced general pregnancy-related discomforts like swelling and aches but were not given fitness as an option by any medical professional to alleviate these symptoms,” the aquatic fitness trainer shared.
About a year ago, an acquaintance of mine gave me a (unsolicited) lecture for not taking care of myself and my baby. My ‘crime’? Attending exercise classes while being five months pregnant.
Of all the restrictions and taboos that a pregnant woman is expected to observe, both Malissa nor I didn’t expect exercise to be one of them. After all, everyone agrees that being physically active is one of the main ways to live a healthy lifestyle. This applies to expectant mums, too, right?
Wrong… according to some people within my social circle, at least. You see, said acquaintance wasn’t the only one who expressed disapproval about my weekly exercises. A few of my friends doubted it was still safe for me to continue indoor spinning; some family members were also worried that swimming would be ‘too cold’ (in a traditional Chinese medicine context) for my womb. This is despite my assurances of having cleared all these exercises with my gynae (a fellow indoor spinning goer), as well as the fact that I’ve been attending regular spin classes for four years and been swimming since I was ten.
Why are expectant mothers not exercising?
Could it be that there’s only a handful of expectant mums who are not leading physically active lifestyles in Singapore? A 2019 study led by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) seems to suggest that this isn’t the case. It found that a majority of pregnant women in Singapore don’t engage in any moderate to vigorous physical activity during the course of their pregnancy. In conclusion, the study stated that there’s a high prevalence of obesity in pregnancy among women in Singapore: 24 percent of the patients involved in the study were overweight, while 11 percent of them were obese during their pregnancy.
Just how serious is obesity in pregnancy? KKH cited an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and delivery complications for mothers, as well as congenital malformations (birth defects), stillbirth, and being born excessively heavy for babies.
So why is it that expectant mothers are not exercising or not exercising enough? Is it due to low awareness of the benefits of exercising among mums? The answer to that question could perhaps be found in a second study led by the hospital: most doctors didn’t advise their patients to start exercising. The reason? Only 16 percent of doctors were confident enough to advise expectant mums about exercises during pregnancy. This was just as Malissa observed; fitness during pregnancy is rarely brought up by doctors.
But let’s not point fingers at doctors alone – we have to admit that there also exists a somewhat negative socio-cultural attitude towards exercising during pregnancy. Having spoken to the same friends and family who cautioned me against exercising, I came to understand their point of view. There’s an impression that mums-to-be are ‘fragile’ and need to take extra care. Expectant mums are to be pampered (no complaints there); they’re not to be upset, should be eating for two in terms of quantity, and shouldn’t be moving around or working too hard at the risk of harming the baby. A friend of a friend who’s from China once told me that most pregnant women back in her hometown stop working once they’re five months pregnant. They would stay at home and, well, just rest. Pretty much like a pre-birth confinement period.
The benefits of exercising during pregnancy go beyond just physical ones
To quote Professor Tan Kok Hian from KKH, regular exercise during pregnancy improves not just physical fitness but “enhances mental health” too. Don’t just take it from the good doctor; Malissa has her own powerful story to prove this.
“Movement and NOT medicine cured me of postpartum depression,” she shared. Her son, Enzo, was born four weeks premature via emergency C-section and spent nine days in NICU. Malissa described this period as “some of the toughest days” of her life. Not only could she not see Enzo while he was in NICU, but she also couldn’t hold him for the first three months without crying. “All I could see was darkness, and all I could feel was helplessness,” she said.
Though the doctors wanted to medicate her for postpartum depression, she boldly refused it. “I knew deep down that once I was able to ‘move’ and exercise a bit, I would be better,” Malissa said. The moment she was out of post-C recovery and allowed to exercise, she started to feel better as she progressed.
Healed by water, Malissa is on a mission to empower other mums through it too.
The first exercise that set Malissa on the road to recovery was really simple – walking in the swimming pool. Growing up in Sri Lanka, Malissa is no stranger to its beautiful beaches, which she credits for her early affinity for water. “Water is also safe, therapeutic, and empowering for both the prenatal journey and postnatal discovery,” she added.
With that, she founded Aqua Tula, where she empowers fellow mums through aquatic fitness. Why aquatic? Malissa explains, “Workouts in the water are safe, low impact, yet highly effective. It’s a form of resistance-based exercise suitable for everyone from any fitness level, age, and health condition. Plus, it’s the best cool-down exercise in sunny Singapore!”
Having attained multiple fitness qualifications in the past 13 years (including pre-and postnatal certifications), Malissa has created a set of aquatic workouts unique to Aqua Tula. “From HIIT, cardio endurance, to strength and conditioning, Aqua Tula workouts are versatile, fully functional, and highly effective. We use interesting and unique equipment as well, so you can expect fun and engaging workouts, too!” she shared.
So what can mums-to-be expect from an Aqua Tula class? “Weightless, cool, and pain-free. She will leave the workout feeling strong, lengthened, toned, and energised,” Malissa promised. The best part is that mums can carry the techniques learned from Aqua Tula throughout their motherhood journey, which can benefit them postpartum and their overall fitness.
This was exactly what Heike Cushway, Founder of The Integrative Medical Centre by The Iron Suites, experienced during her Aqua Tula classes. “There are so many things I love about Aqua Tula. The lower resistance but high-impact training is a fantastic workout that really helped to get my body into shape and keep it that way. I also love starting my day in the water, surrounded by the beautiful community that Malissa created. Aqua Tula’s workout is perfect for everyone. Malissa is a great trainer who is always ready to adapt the exercises to individual needs. I’ve trained with her since I was pregnant, during postnatal rehab, and now as a challenging workout.”
Simple Aqua Tula workouts you can do in your nearest pool
- Walk or jog forward, backwards, and sideways in waist- or chest-high water with aquatic gloves.
- Sit upright on a pool noodle, do a breaststroke with your hands and bicycle pedal with your feet, all the while maintaining an upright upper body position.
- With one leg in front of the other in waist-high water, perform a chest fly with aquatic dumbbells, starting with these half-submerged underwater.
You can also check out video tutorials of these on Aqua Tula’s Instagram page.
Everyone can enjoy aquatic workouts
Though Aqua Tula was born from Malissa’s passion to spread awareness about water as therapy for pre-and postnatal issues, its workouts are suitable for all. Whether you’re a new mum-to-be, recovering from an injury, or just looking for a fun exercise class, Aqua Tula welcomes all! You can reach out to Aqua Tula to find out more.
For more information about safe forms of exercise during pregnancy, you can refer to the official guidelines endorsed by the Obstetrical & Gynaecological Society of Singapore.