SALT LAKE CITY — A pregnant woman in her third trimester recently came under fire from people around the country after a photo of her doing CrossFit went viral. Many deemed the high-intensity workout too unsafe for a woman with child. But doctors and other pregnant women are fighting back, saying it's not the pregnant exercisers they should be concerned about.
Lee-Ann Ellison, 35 and pregnant, was eight months pregnant and regularly attends a CrossFit class in her neighborhood. Proud of her success, she emailed the company a picture of herself lifting weights a few weeks ago to show what pregnant women can do if they are fit. The company released her picture on their Facebook page and Ellison was shocked at the uproar that quickly followed.
"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. Amanda Strippel wrote, "Sorry lady, not safe. Baby first, sanity second."
Ellison was surprised so many people felt strongly about her lifting weights while pregnant. She says she's an avid exerciser and worked under the direction of her doctor.
"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 told Yahoo. "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."
Ellison says she has made the appropriate modifications as her pregnancy has progressed and doesn't understand the negativity surrounding her photo.
"I used to take CrossFit classes five days a week, but lately, I've scaled back to three times," Ellison said. "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?"
And many agree with her. Dr. Erin A. S. Clark, a maternal fetal specialist and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah, says she never has to talk to patients about exercising too hard. She mostly spends time trying to convince women to do some kind of daily activity.
"99 percent of the time that I spend talking about exercise, it is not warning people against too strenuous or too long of exercise," Clark told ksl.com. "It's getting people active and moving because the current recommendations are for at least 30 minutes of activity and most women don't even meet those."
Clark says it's just a small subset of the pregnant population that are interested in and fit enough to continue to do intense levels of exercise like Ellison. If they willingly add some modifications, they can exercise right up until the day they deliver. Registered dietician and mom of two Kary Woodruff, who also did CrossFit during her second pregnancy, did just that, and delivered two healthy, normal-weight baby girls.
"With my first I did a CrossFit workout the day before and I went for a run the day I delivered," Woodruff, who completed a half-Ironman before her first pregnancy, told ksl.com. "I did a CrossFit workout the day I delivered with my second."
Woodruff, like Ellison, was able to successfully complete her second pregnancy doing CrossFit workouts about three days a week, and walking and running on the other days. She credits her trainers at CrossFit who had extensive knowledge with working with pregnant women and helped her modify her routine. She says that it's all about listening to your body while you're pregnant and exercising.
"When I first got pregnant, I asked (my doctor) and I said, 'So what can I do, and what can't I do? and she (said), 'Don't worry, your body will tell you' and it does," Woodruff, who works at TOSH, said. "So I remember I never felt overwhelmed because I listened to my body."
Clark does not understand the backlash directed at Ellison.
"I think far more criticism should be directed towards those women who are inactive throughout pregnancy," Clark told ksl.com. "We should be trying to encourage women to get that minimum of 30 minutes of activity."
And what about women who have lower back pain or are too sick to workout while pregnant? Both Clark and Woodruff give advice on how to handle these common pregnancy problems. Clark says lower back and pelvic pain is common because pregnancy hormones make them more limber.
"In people who have more of that type of pain, physical therapy can sometimes help," Clark said. "Instead of doing jogging and walking that might exacerbate symptoms, women end up going to the swimming pool where they're less uncomfortable during activity."
Woodruff says she didn't have any lower back pain but she was sick for the whole nine months and says she figured if she was going to be sick no matter what, she might as well be active.
"There were so many days where I pulled into the parking lot and it took me ten minutes to get out of my car to get the courage to go because I just felt so sick," she said. "I didn't always feel better while I was doing it... but still I was always glad that I did it."
Clark emphasizes that Ellison and Woodruff are in the minority, but they are often the ones that get the most attention. A few years ago, a 39-week pregnant runner ran the whole Chicago Marathon and gave birth hours later. But Clark wants the discussion to focus on what people can do to encourage pregnant women to actually exercise during the nine months of pregnancy.
"We focus on these situations where really fit people are doing extraordinary things and level a lot of criticism at them and say, 'What are you doing? Is this safe?'" Clark said. "Whereas really our focus should be getting pregnant women active."
For more information on types of beginning exercises for pregnant women, visit americanpregnancy.org.