It was on a work trip to New York City this past fall when I first felt it. On the short walk from my hotel to the work event I was set to attend a few blocks away, the nausea of pregnancy came on like a wave: that horrible, warm, I-might-throw-up feeling hit the back of my throat and I started to feel lightheaded. I immediately thought about bailing on the event, but I had traveled from Boston for this, so I decided to stop at a pharmacy for saltines and ginger ale. About six weeks into my first pregnancy, I had never felt anything like this before, so I thought that, like any other time I'd been nauseous, if I ate something to settle my stomach, it would pass.
When the event plus a day full of meetings in Manhattan were over, I found myself on a train back to Boston holding back the urge to get sick the entire four-hour ride. I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out that this first day of sudden nausea was just the beginning of what would be a really rough first trimester for me.
That weekend, I was almost hospitalized I was so dehydrated from vomiting. The next couple of weeks, I was pretty much relegated to my 600-square-foot apartment. No matter what I was doing—waking up, falling asleep, trying to work—I always felt only a few minutes away from another trip to the bathroom and had little energy to spare. I tried some things that helped a bit, but they only ever took the edge off. I cancelled other work trips, outings with friends, road races, and workouts.
Before I found out I was pregnant this fall, fitness was a huge part of my life.
I usually worked out five to six days a week and had just run my first sub-two-hour half-marathon, plus my very first marathon a few months earlier. I was used to regularly sweating in indoor cycling classes and trying my hand at new workout classes around the city. But soon, I could barely roll out of bed to meet my deadlines for the day. Thinking of doing one of my typical workouts was unfathomable.
It was a big change that made me panic. Exercise helps me stay calm and process everything that happens in my life, and it’s a big part of my social life. Plus, not having the energy to work out started to make me feel even worse: I missed that burst of energy it gave me, and how it boosted my mood. Without it, I felt pretty down.
I definitely had good and bad days throughout my first trimester, and on bad days, exercising was the furthest thing from my mind. I never even thought to push myself to work out when I was feeling that unwell. Sometimes, on good days, I’d try to go for a short run like normal but nothing felt normal—everything felt off. My boobs, which had grown a full cup size (if not more) only a few weeks in, hurt and didn’t fit into my sports bras. I was short of breath much sooner than usual. One mile felt like 11. Indoor cycling class? When I could get myself there, it left me lightheaded.
I quickly realized that if I wanted to stay active, I had to accept that it was going to look a lot different from what I was used to. Here’s the good news: With a little bit of foresight and some tweaks to my routine, I was able to keep moving throughout the first 12 weeks of my pregnancy. Not every day. And sometimes not in the ways I would have liked to. But I learned to make it work, found a way to feel a little bit better even when my energy levels dipped, and learned a lot along the way. And yes, that meant also waiting to exercise until I was actually well enough to be active. Attempting to exercise when you're constantly vomiting, overwhelmingly fatigued, and dehydrated is just not recommended.
But, remember that every single pregnancy is different. What works best for you may be totally different than what works for me. Despite the normal first trimester symptoms I had—yep, even bad nausea and overwhelming fatigue is totally normal—my ob/gyn cleared me for exercise at my first prenatal appointment. While exercise is typically safe and recommended during pregnancy, it’s important to talk to your doctor and get cleared for fitness before working out.
All that said, here’s what worked for me:
I begrudgingly took a break from some of my go-to workouts.
When I found out I was pregnant, I told myself I wouldn’t stop running. But after three attempts at jogging around my neighborhood that left me feeling uncomfortable, discouraged, and frustrated, I decided it was time to try something new.
I turned to a great yoga studio, Coolidge Corner Yoga, about a mile from my apartment. I walked there when I could, and drove when I was pressed for time. After each class, I really felt like I got a solid workout in without the pounding of running, which was rewarding. My body agreed with the low-impact movement and my mind appreciated the time to relax and disconnect from everything going on around (and inside) me. I started to look forward to my weekly Wednesday afternoon class—I even had my husband join me one day.
I started working out at home a lot more, too.
While I own enough gear to loosely stock a sparse at-home gym—some lighter hand weights, a yoga mat, and resistance bands—I’m not a big at-home exerciser. I prefer a class, in a room full of excited, determined energy, and a trainer in the front guiding the way. But I decided anything that might make exercising more comfortable and convenient was worth a try.
After doing some research, I came across Obe Fitness, and signed up (it’s $ 27 a month or $ 199 a year). They offer both streaming live classes out of their NYC studio and on-demand classes. They also have prenatal and post-natal classes in a slew of different formats, including strength and yoga. I found some of their classes to be on the easier side compared to the strength work I was used to, but they were perfect on those days when I could really only manage smaller doses of movement…ideally from my living room.
Since my favorite forms of cardio weren’t quite working for me, I actually found that I did more strength training during my first trimester than I likely would have if I’d just been sticking with my normal running-heavy routine. I noticed my upper body was stronger, and I could soon do a push-up with way more strength than before.
I learned to be OK with doing a lot less and celebrating small wins.
When you’re used to killing it in cycling class, or running your heart out, or going above and beyond whatever fitness goal you set, it’s really hard to learn to pump the breaks and be OK with stopping early and doing less. But during my first trimester, I came to terms with the fact that I had to let go of my pride and listen to my body.
After all, on the days I really didn’t feel like doing a structured workout, trying to reach my activity tracker’s step goal (as arbitrary as it may be) could a big enough challenge in itself (and shout out to my husband who, one night, walked around our city block with me just to get myself from 9,000 to 10,000 steps so I could feel a sense of accomplishment).
During this time, my run coach told me something that stuck with me: Most likely, I’d eventually get back to my peak fitness days post-pregnancy, so during pregnancy, I should try not to worry about the numbers/stats/sets/reps or compare myself to my pre-pregnant self. At first, that was really hard. But once I started to accept that, I learned to be OK with doing whatever activity felt good in the moment. Just getting to a workout class (even if I sat in the last row and even if I didn’t do a single move of the actual choreography) was a victory. And you know what? When I could get beyond caring what I thought I should or could or used to be able to do, I appreciated the fact that just moving at all felt good.
I learned that I could find new ways to feel good even if they were totally different from what I knew to feel good in the past, and even if they didn’t live up to some kind of imaginary pregnancy workout expectations I had set for myself.
The best part of all: The first trimester does come to an end. And while my second trimester has been far from the “honeymoon” that I heard about (who came up with that anyway?), I have been able to do more. I’ve even started running again. Last week, on a day I was feeling really good, I actually did one of my regular loops: 6 miles around the river here in Boston. I moved a lot slower and while I hesitated to even share it on my running app, I did. Because I got out there and did what felt good, and ultimately, that’s something to be proud of.