Should Pregnant Women Be Weightlifting?

Facebook/Lee-Ann EllisonExercise is essential for a healthy pregnancy, but one photo of a pregnant woman weightlifting has ignited a fiery debate on how much pregnant women should sweat. 

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Lea-Ann Ellison, 35, a stay-at-home mom in Los Angeles, is eight months pregnant with her third child and attends regular CrossFit classes at her local gym. Last week, Ellison emailed the company touting her success on the workout and included a photo of herself lifting weights. A few days later, the company posted the photo on its Facebook page, triggering an outcry on social media. Ellison received thousands of comments — many of which were negative — on CrossFit's and her own Facebook pages, through several media outlets, and in email.


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“This is why CrossFit is horrible. No one knows what they're doing. This is a good way to lose your baby,” wrote Facebook user Evan Kennedy, a physical therapist. Andrea Hatfield wrote, “I do not find this impressive at all. No one would post a picture of themselves drinking a beer while eight months pregnant. Risky behavior while pregnant is no laughing matter." And Amanda Strippel wrote, “Sorry lady, not safe. Baby first, sanity second.” 

However, Ellison had her share of supporters. “I’m six months pregnant with triplets and am still Crossfitting as much as I can,” wrote Carol Metzger Bolliger. And Melissa McCarty wrote, “I've had four kids and pregnancy isn't a handicap. It isn't an excuse to 'slow down'. You know your limits and obviously she's doing exactly what her body allows. Great job mama!”

Lea-Ann/Facebook The benefits of exercise during pregnancy are long proven: increased blood flow and energy, sounder sleep, and the release of endorphins (mood-boosting hormones). And one recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that exercise reduces the risk of having a baby with a high birth weight and of having a cesarean section. However, many doctors point to pregnancy exertion as the cause of cervical problems and preterm labor, and public opinion is divided on whether women who continue to hit the gym during pregnancy are selfishly harming their unborn babies.

“I was really shocked by the reaction to my photos since I've always exercised during my two previous pregnancies and doctors have assured me that my routine is safe for both myself and my child," Ellison tells Yahoo Shine. “However, the minute the photo was posted online, I received an onslaught of comments from men and women telling me that pregnancy is no time to be tough and that I’m vain and selfish. It's surprising that something I've always done — and consider normal — is shocking to so many people."

Ellison’s routine of choice is CrossFit — an hourlong high-intensity exercise program that focuses on core strengthening and conditioning. It incorporates Olympic weight training, aerobic exercise, and gymnastics, using barbells, dumbbells, tire flipping, kettle bells and medicine balls. CrossFit is controversial — according to a story published in the Guardian, in addition to the already-strenuous training, the competition between participants (classes are small and intimate) lead many to overexert and collapse on the floor from exhaustion.

Despite the photo of Ellison that's caused so much uproar, she says she doesn't lift heavy weights. "I did lift weights for my maternity photo shoot but only 35 pounds," she says. "The most I've lifted while pregnant is 65." An avid exerciser, Ellison bought her first gym membership when she was only 16 years old. “I was really skinny and wanted some curves, so I started running and lifting at the gym,” she says. Soon, Ellison’s love of fitness snowballed and she began mountain biking, trail running, weight lifting and entering amateur fitness competitions. Two years ago, she discovered CrossFit and never looked back.

Ellison begins each day by cooking breakfast for her son, 8, and daughter, 12. Once the kids are off to school, she eats half a cup of oatmeal with coconut oil and cinnamon, followed by a three-egg omelet with avocado and black beans and a protein shake, before heading off to CrossFit class.  Lunch usually consists of a grilled-steak salad or chicken with pasta, and dinner is another lean protein with vegetables and rice. She satisfies her rare sugar cravings with small amounts of dark chocolate.

“I used to take CrossFit classes five days a week, but lately, I’ve scaled back to three times,” says Ellison, who has gained a healthy 23 pounds of pregnancy weight. "What bothers me most about all this backlash is that there are so many pregnant women who eat poorly and don't exercise at all during their pregnancies. There is an obesity epidemic in this country. What about that?"

According to Steve Goldstein, M.D., professor of urology and gynecology at New York University (he is not Ellison's doctor), she seems to be on the right track as long as a medical professional is monitoring her routine. "If she's resting when she's tired, in general, I don't see the harm," Goldstein tells Yahoo Shine.

"However, the body goes through so many physiological changes during pregnancy which can alter balance and center of gravity, so it's important to pay attention to your body," he says. "Also, it's not wise for women to take up an unfamiliar exercise routine. Pregnancy is a brand-new sport."

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