{Professional Insight} Relieving the Stresses of NICU Life with Exercise

February 27, 2014
Photo courtesy of Eye Candy by Candace Photography

Photo courtesy of Eye Candy by Candace Photography

Finding out you are pregnant is one of the most exciting things ever, especially if you had a difficult time getting there.  We expect our pregnancies to be flawless and joyful.  But, when you find out you are having triplets as I did, that world comes crashing down.  And for some of us, unforeseen pregnancy complications arise causing us to deliver our children prematurely.  Needless to say, having preemies is a high-stress situation.

Stress is hard on the body, on so many levels.  Stress can cause physical manifestations such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, anxiety, depression, and more. Stress harms our bodies due to the release of cortisol which tends to linger and can cause a plethora of problems.  The key to managing stress is to bring our bodies back to a normal state of being.

How can we accomplish this?  Exercise.  If you were like me, you may have been on bed rest for a length of time, causing muscles to deteriorate, which means strenuous exercise after the birth of your child/children almost an impossibility.  It took me a long time to get to the level of fitness I am currently at and everything I have done has been at home.   But don’t give up!  You will need to start slow in this case.

Since we spend so much time in the NICU (I was in there from 8am to 8pm the 10 days before my girls came home, and then an additional 4 days waiting for my son to come home), you can start there.  Exercise is best when done for longer than 20 minutes, but unfortunately, the NICU life doesn’t always allow for a perfect schedule, so we are forced to do WHAT we can WHEN we can.  Here are some great ways to incorporate exercise into the NICU experience, especially when waiting for shift change to occur or sitting next to your baby/ies.

  • Do squats, lunges, marching in place while next to your sweet baby/ies.
  • Do one-legged squats.  Hold onto a wall, table, or crib for added support.  Once you start getting stronger, do not hold on to anything.  Engage your core to help keep your balance!
  • Take the stairs rather than the elevator.  Shoot, go up and down the stairs 5 times and really amp up the building of your largest muscle group, your quads!  Any time you need to move from floor to floor, take those stairs.  Remember the days of old when step classes were popular?  Make use of those moves in the stairwell.
  • Do some low-impact jumping jacks (raise your right arm and tap your left toe to the side while keeping your right foot on the floor; alternate sides).
  • Simulate jump roping in place.
  • Do some wall push-ups.
  • Wall sits are great for the legs and strengthening them.  Start with a 15 second wall sit.  As you get stronger, hold that wall sit longer.
  • In the hall, do walking lunges.  Again, a great exercise to build those larger leg muscles!
  • Take a walk around the hospital grounds.  Fresh air and a good walk will help that blood get pumping.

A 30 minute walk will help your body reduce cortisol and return us to a more natural state.  From there, you can work your way up to a gym or a home workout program such as Beachbody’s Focus T25 or TurboFire or Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred.  There are also many other benefits to reducing stress.

Exercising regularly has been proven to do the following:

  • Reduce stress levels
  • Improve sleeping
  • Help with anxiety and depression (especially those baby blues)
  • Strengthens your heart
  • Increases your energy level
  • Reduces body fat, thus also helping in weight loss
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Builds muscle and improves overall muscle tone
  • Boosts your self esteem

At first, you may not be able to walk a solid 30 minutes, so starting with a 15 minute walk and building up is absolutely acceptable.  If you can walk twice a day for 15 minutes (maybe while the NICU is closed for shift changes or before you leave and when you get back from visiting your precious newborn/s), you will benefit greatly in all the above mentioned areas.  Once you begin to build endurance and gain muscles, you can up the amount of time that you are walking.  Add 5-10 minutes every 3 or so days as well as increasing your speed.  Walking is an activity I did for the first 2 years of my babies’ lives.  I even took them with me, adding extra resistance by pushing the triplet stroller.

You can track your walking by downloading one of many free apps for your Android or iPhone.  My personal favorite is Map My Walk.  You will be able to track distance, speed, and calories burned.  You can also find other fitness apps as well.  Just do a search online or your phone provider’s app search engine!

If you start finding that walking is not providing a good enough workout, increase those walks to jogs.  No, you don’t have to start jogging and go the full distance you are going with your walks!  What you can do is jog for 30 seconds, then walk for 1 minute.  Continue this pattern for the same amount of time you were walking previously.  If you find 30 seconds too long, drop that down to 15 seconds jogging, 45 seconds walking.  The increase in your heart rate during that time you are jogging will be great for calorie burning as well as kicking in those endorphins much more quickly!

Let’s pause a minute and talk about endorphins.  When you exercise, your brain releases these endorphins which create a happy state of mind.  You have heard the term “runner’s high”, it is a very euphoric feeling caused by the mass release of endorphins.  It has been compared to the drug morphine, but it is the body’s natural happy drug, no need for a hard crash after!  By having a daily release of endorphins, you are better able to manage the stresses tossed at you, especially during the high-stress NICU experience and then caring for a NICU baby after they come home.  I cannot tell you how much better I felt after taking the kids on a daily 45-minute walk.  It really saved my sanity, especially if we walked during the witching hour.

Eventually, walking/jogging will not be enough for you.  You will want to see more physical changes and tone that body.  You deserve this much!  I wish I had known more about taking care of myself in those first 3 years of my triplet’s life.  Taking the time every day to take care of yourself provides an excellent outlet to relieve stress.  It wasn’t until I became a Beachbody Coach that I fully understood the importance of taking care of myself to be a better me, which ultimately made me a much better parent.

When the time comes to reach new fitness goals, you can do everything in the comfort of your own home through home workout DVD’s such as Insanity, The Biggest Loser, P90X3, and many more.  The market is flooded with them, for all levels of fitness.  Finding the right one may take some time but once you do, it is amazing to be able to work out at home, not worrying about finding the 1+ hours in the day to go to the gym.  I exercise about 30 minutes per day, 6-7 days per week, doing a variety of cardio, weight lifting, yoga, and more, all in the comfort of my living room.

Life in the NICU and after is anything but easy.  We all know that the minute we walk in and see all the wires and hear all the machines going off.  Incorporating exercise into your routine will not only help you relieve stress, but it will better equip you to deal with difficult decisions we face while our little ones are fighting for their lives.  Never hesitate to reach out to others that have walked a mile as a NICU parent.


Photo courtesy of Eye Candy by Candace Photography

Photo courtesy of Eye Candy by Candace Photography

Beachbody Coach Astrid Novak is the mother to triplets who turn 6 in March.  Born early at an hour shy of 34 weeks gestation, Sofia (4 lbs, 9 oz), Gabriella (4 lbs, 4 oz), and Ian (4 lbs 1 oz) had a relatively easy NICU ride but it all came crashing down when Ian was almost lost to a prolonged seizure caused by the H1N1 flu virus at 9.5 months old.  In the days that followed the children coming home, walking became a daily family event to keep Astrid and husband, Todd, sane.  Since then, Astrid has accomplished running a half marathon and achieved many of her personal fitness goals through home workout programs. She is now a Beachbody Coach, promoting healthy, fit lifestyles by hosting fitness challenge groups to all that want to take charge of their health.  Astrid is especially interested in helping parents of multiples and singletons alike, teaching the value of loving yourself by taking care of your physical body.  Astrid is also available for consultations, advice, and more importantly, support in that journey.  You can find Astrid on her website, Facebook, on Twitter as @AstridNovak and on Instagram as @teamsigfit.