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Staying fit before and after baby

With role models like New York City Marathon winner Paula Radcliffe, who trained throughout her pregnancy, it's clear that exercise doesn't need to stop when pregnancy begins. And when you consider the benefits of exercise -- including lower risk of gestational diabetes, easier labor, and a more speedy recovery -- exercise is one of the best things a mom-to-be can do for herself.

While we're certainly not expected to run 26-mile races, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests that, with a doctor's approval, most pregnant women can get 30 minutes of exercise daily. Check out these fun, alternative ways to work up a sweat.

BEFORE BABY

"If you're pregnant, get active!'' says Jill Dailey McIntosh, a mother of three who spread her own workout plan, The Dailey Method -- a mix of ballet, core exercises, and stretching -- across Northern California and Chicago.

"One of the biggest bonuses of working out while you're pregnant is the recovery time," she says. "If you're working out consistently, the baby weight can come off in as little as two months."

Exercise will also help build and maintain endurance, something you'll be glad to have come pushing time. And, as long as your pregnancy is complication-free and your doc gives their permission, you can keep up your routine as long as you'd like.

"I actually either taught a class or took a class the day I went into labor with all three of my kids," Jill recalls. But you don't need to go to extremes to have a fit pregnancy. Start simple with these ideas.

BELLY DANCING

This traditional Middle Eastern dance has helped women prepare for childbirth since ancient times. The circling, tilting moves help soothe baby, prepare your body for delivery, and keep you nice and toned. Don't let shyness about your body scare you away -- belly dancing will help you embrace your new shape, and the artful moves are purported to get your sexual energy flowing. Search your community listings for classes or try out a DVD like "Prenatal Bellydance," by World Dance New York ($13 on amazon.com).

HIT THE POOL

The more your belly expands, the better swimming and water aerobics will feel. As your body becomes weightless in water, aquatics take a load off joints and compressed organs for a while. You can work a variety of muscle groups in the pool, and floating will allow you to feel graceful again for a minute or two. Imagine that.

BABY BY YOUR SIDE

Once baby is born and has become the focus of all your attention, time (and motivation) may be seriously lacking. But postnatal exercise is extra-important for your stamina -- and your self-image. "You need to work out so you'll have the energy for motherhood!'' stresses Lisa Druxman, creator of the nationwide Stroller Strides fitness classes. "Maybe you can't make it to the gym or meet your friend for a run, but you can fit something in."

Talk to your doc about how much time you need to lay low to recover from the delivery. Once you get the go-ahead, here are a few ideas to keep things interesting.

SERIOUS STROLLING

The simplest way to work out after delivery is to hit the sidewalk. And, if you're ready for the next level or want some companions along the way, stroller fitness classes abound. In programs like Lisa's Stroller Strides, new moms use power walking and mutual motivation to get their hearts pumping and drop the post-baby pounds.

BABY WEIGHTS

If you can't get a second to yourself for weight training, tone up by lifting your baby. In Lisa's book Lean Mommy, she recommends moves like chest presses, crunches, and hip bridges, using your baby as resistance.

"It's probably the one moment of the day that mom does something for herself, but she's not by herself," Lisa says. Feel guilty using baby as a barbell? Don't sweat it -- exercising together benefits baby, too. "They see that you make it a point to exercise and that you like it," explains Lisa. And those benefits will continue right into childhood. "Children want to mimic their parents."

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