Being pregnant during the coronavirus has created anxiety and stress that only a workout can release. So recently, at 38 weeks pregnant, with my hair pulled back in a ponytail and Whitney Houston blasting through my AirPods, I began to pedal on an indoor bike.
For a moment, the endorphins started to kick in as my mind shut off, but the discomfort of my clothes interrupted my exercise high.
I have stopped wearing maternity workout pants, as the section that is intended to cover my belly is now too constricting and uncomfortable. So I wore non-maternity exercise pants, which were two sizes larger than my normal size. The pants jabbed into my lower pelvis with each movement of my legs.
My maternity sports bra matched my cup size but dug into my sides, failing to accommodate for the expansion of my rib cage. Enormous sweat lines encircled my armpits and groin. My pregnancy activewear wasn’t designed to wick moisture, even though a higher core temperature and excess sweat are common during pregnancy, particularly while exercising.
I wanted to feel empowered in my body. But in my maternity activewear, I felt the opposite.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that pregnant women get at least 150 minutes, or 2.5 hours, of medium-intensity aerobic activity — like walking, swimming or riding a stationary bike — each week. Pregnant women are advised to continue the physical activities that they did before pregnancy, although moderate exercise is recommended even for those who did not exercise.
So how come maternity activewear options are so limited?
Despite the known health benefits of exercise for pregnant women, most major athletic clothing lines like Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and New Balance do not make maternity clothes. Many of these companies pride themselves on promoting female athletes and supporting women, and yet they do not produce activewear for what can be one of the most physically challenging periods of a woman’s life.
Maternity clothing brands do make activewear options, but they are often limited or costly. While A Pea in the Pod, Ingrid & Isabel and Seraphine offer activewear, in my experience, the clothing is not designed to sweat in, uncomfortable in the third trimester or too expensive. Yoga pants from some maternity clothing brands can cost close to $100 and tops around $60.
The maternity activewear offerings available also do not cater to the diversity of women’s bodies. “It was a nightmare trying to find maternity activewear, especially because I was plus-size and pregnant,” says Tonya Abari, a writer and parent in Nashville. “So what ended up happening was that I just stopped working out because I just didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t feel like I could be out in public without having the right clothes on.”
The lack of quality, affordable maternity activewear is even more upsetting considering that the benefits of exercise are not just limited to moms-to-be. When a woman exercises during pregnancy, it can help improve her infant’s neuromotor development (which can lead to a more active child), prevent childhood obesity and reduce the risk of congenital abnormalities.
An active pregnancy also helps postpartum recovery. Exercise is “intimately connected to a couple different conditions that we see postpartum,” says Karen Hodges, a physical therapist specializing in the pelvic floor in Oakland, Calif. “There is a benefit [to exercise] in protecting against diastasis recti, which is when your abdominals separate, and consistent exercise throughout pregnancy is associated with increasing pelvic floor strength,” which can help a woman ward off issues like pelvic organ prolapse or incontinence.
With all these known benefits, many pregnant women still do not get the exercise they need. A 2010 study found that just 23 percent of U.S. pregnant women exercised as much as was recommended and a 2017 study showed that nearly half of pregnant women gain more weight than guidelines say they should during pregnancy.
The dearth of affordable, comfortable and attractive clothes to exercise in affects pregnant women’s ability to work out and can also damage their self-esteem. “When you’re pregnant, you still want to feel good, and I definitely did not feel good. People were inviting me to things in my third trimester and I kept saying, ‘I can’t go,’” Abari says.
It goes without saying: The current activewear maternity market does not reflect pregnant women’s needs. “The maternity market overall has been challenged over the past few years, and in my opinion, the market is going to continue to decline,” says Shelley E. Kohan, a senior retail executive and professor at Fashion Institute of Technology. She believes that companies are not incentivized to produce maternity activewear due to the lack of potential profit.
“If you think about maternity wear, with the sizing and the range that you have to accommodate,” Kohan says, she’s not sure that, long term, producing maternity activewear “would be one of the most profitable aspects of the business.”
After wasting countless hours searching online — and with my pregnancy coming to an end any day now — I still haven’t found high-quality, inexpensive, good-looking maternity activewear.
Being pregnant is challenging enough; having the right clothes to exercise in doesn’t seem like too much to ask.