Nothing tests your physical and mental endurance like caring for a newborn. It’s like you’re running on a nonstop treadmill—while suffering from extreme sleep deprivation, carrying extra weight, dealing with new boobs, and listening to a tiny drill sergeant scream at you. Heather Mitts knows the struggle intimately. The former professional soccer player and three-time Olympic gold medalist became pregnant with her first child a few months after retiring in 2013.
Even though she was used to exercising for a living, Mitts wasn’t prepared for how challenging it would be to find the time and energy to work on regaining her fitness after her son, Connor, was born in 2014. “I was very active during my pregnancy,” says Mitts, who lives in Newtown Square with her husband, former Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley. “I was on the elliptical the day before Connor was born. But I was shocked by how hard it was to get back in shape. I didn’t anticipate how exhausting and frustrating the recovery would be.”
Even though Mitts eventually lost the 35 pounds she gained during her pregnancy, she still struggled with a stubborn belly “pooch.” She sought medical help and discovered she suffered from diastasis recti, a fairly common pregnancy/postpartum condition that occurs when the right and left halves of the abdominal muscles separate.
With the help of a physical therapist, Mitts did core exercises that repaired the muscles and enabled her to recover. When Mitts became pregnant again in 2016 with daughter Blake, she wanted to have a different experience. She knew that she needed to keep her core and pelvic muscles strong to ensure smooth delivery and recovery. But she also now had a toddler to care for and realized getting out to the gym wasn’t always going to be an option.
All of that inspired Mitts to create Empowered Pregnancy, a series of easy-to-follow workout videos that help expecting women to prepare their bodies for the endurance test of motherhood. “I wanted an exercise routine that was safe, challenging, fun, and made me feel great about myself and my changing body,” Mitts explains. “I realized there were few options available for pregnant women, and I wanted to change that. I hope that women who do the workouts feel confident and strong and good about taking care of their bodies and their babies.”
If you were active before becoming pregnant and you’re considered low-risk, most doctors will encourage you to continue exercising while expecting. Not only does working out increase your odds of having a healthy pregnancy and delivery, but staying in shape will help prep you to have the strength and stamina to care for a newborn baby and resume your active lifestyle. “The better shape you are in during your pregnancy, the easier it is for you to bounce back afterward,” says Kira Przybylko, M.D., a Capital Health Ob/GYN physician who practices in Lawrenceville, N.J. “The longer it’s been since you exercised, the harder it is to get back in shape.”
To create the routines, Mitts teamed up with sports physiologist Shannon Grady, who is also a former professional athlete and mom. “Our whole goal was to help women stay active during pregnancy in a safe and effective way that will help them recover as quickly as possible and feel stronger afterward,” says Grady, who used to be a competitive runner and now works as a performance-enhancement coach based in Philadelphia. “I worked with Heather to develop a routine for her second and third trimesters of her second pregnancy, and those exercises became the basis of Empowered Pregnancy.” Empowered Pregnancy consists of 12 workouts—six for your second trimester and six for your third trimester—that follow the guidelines of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Each workout is 30 minutes long and focuses on core, upper-body, and lower-body strengthening. The workouts require minimal equipment and space, so they can be done in the comfort of your home. There are many reasons healthy women with low-risk pregnancies are encouraged to exercise. “Exercise during pregnancy can reduce back and pelvic pain, promote healthy weight gain—which decreases the risk of developing gestational diabetes and hypertension, and improves fitness and strength—which may make for an easier labor, decreases risk of blood clots, and may improve mood and reduce risk of postpartum depression,” says Dr. Przybylko. She cautions women to consult with a physician before starting an exercise program.
Thanks to Grady’s workouts, Mitts had a far easier and smoother recovery after her second delivery. She hopes that by using Empowered Pregnancy, other women can avoid some of the struggles she experienced, especially diastasis. “I hope to bring more awareness to the issue of diastasis,” Mitts says. “It affects so many pregnant women, and yet I’m amazed by how many women are unaware.” To address that issue and help other women prevent it, Grady included moves in Empowered Pregnancy that target a woman’s deep core and pelvic muscles. “Women might think you need to do crunches, but that’s not an effective exercise for building real core and pelvic strength,” Grady says. “We focus on activating your pelvic floor and keeping that activation as you do a squat and a plank. That trains you to keep that pelvic floor strong.”
Your pelvic floor is made up of layers of muscles that stretch from the pubic bone to the tip of the spine. The stress of carrying and delivering a baby can weaken these muscles and cause stress incontinence (leaking urine when you cough or sneeze) during and after pregnancy. Performing pelvic-floor exercises while pregnant and after can help prevent this issue. Grady says that the workouts can also be done postpartum as a way to ease back into an exercise routine.
She just cautions new moms to come back gradually and only resume exercise once they have their doctor’s blessing. “I advise that you start with just low-intensity exercise like walking and doing deep pelvic activation and build slowly from there,” she says. Mitts is still tired. She’s chasing around a 3-year-old and sleep-training her 1-year-old while also planning two soccer summer camps for girls in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. (She also recently partnered with former teammate Angela Hucles to launch Ceres Platinum to help female athletes adjust to life when their careers are over.) But she feels strong, fit, and healthy—just as an empowered mom should.