After reading an interview with the new mother and supermodel Gisele Bundchen, I decided it really was time I did some exercise. She is on the cover of this month's US Vogue, and only weeks after giving birth, her figure looks phenomenal. The Brazilian beauty tells the magazine: "I think it's muscle memory. I did kung fu up until two weeks before Benjamin was born, and yoga three days a week. I think a lot of people get pregnant and decide they can turn into garbage disposals. I was mindful about what I ate, and I gained only 30 pounds."
I have a few things in common with Gisele. A couple of years ago we were practically neighbours in New York's West Village - she lived in a $5 million (Dh18.3m) brownstone two streets from the 800-square-foot walk-up my husband and I called home. But more relevant to this article, we were pregnant at around the same time. I also ate healthily and exercised regularly throughout my pregnancy. Like many women who don't have the same freakishly good genetic code as Gisele, it's going to take more than muscle memory for me to snap back into shape completely. Yet three months after my firstborn arrived, I still hadn't done a single workout. Finding the motivation was one thing; finding the opportunity was quite another.
That's why I was excited when I heard about a new fitness class called Mummies with Buggies. As the name suggests, it's a workout that incorporates buggies and pushchairs, so your baby can come along for the ride. For me, finding a class that did not require a babysitter meant that the biggest hurdle had already been overcome. I called the instructor, Jo Hawi, to inquire if my son, Jack, was of an appropriate age to attend. She assured that me babies of all ages were welcome, and not to worry about tears because there was always one that cried.
Hawi, the mother of Laith, six, and May, three, has lived in Abu Dhabi for 15 years, working as a personal trainer in private homes across the city. She initially gained her qualifications through the YMCA in the UK, gaining an RSA certificate, which is a "basic certificate in teaching exercise to music". She is also certified by The American Council on Exercise (ACE), and has studied sports therapy and rehabilitation with a diploma through Premier Training in the UK.
After researching similar programmes to Mummies with Buggies (Pushy Mothers in the UK and Stroller Strides in the US), Hawi introduced the concept along Abu Dhabi's Corniche just over a month ago. But due to the heat already kicking in, the summer programme is taking place in the cooler confines of Marina Mall. Classes start at 8.45am with a warm-up walk that progresses into a 20-minute power-walk interspersed with 15-second intervals of jogging. The group then finds a spot for a series of toning exercises that keep the heart rate up, such as lunges, squats, bicep curls, side raises, tricep dips and press-ups. Hawi likes to incorporate the surrounding environment into the routine, for example park or mall benches.
On the day I took the class, Jack had been up since 5.30am, so I was hopeful he'd nod off in the pushchair. He, however, had other ideas, playing the overtired card to full effect. In order to control his wailing, I had to carry him in a sling on my front for the majority of the session. It was warm work even at that early hour and it seems a good call to move the class indoors even if summer hasn't officially started.
Half expecting a few smug sniggers from the other mums, whose babies were quite content in their pushchairs, I was pleasantly surprised by their reassurances that "first babies are always like that". And so I proceeded squatting and lunging with seven kilos of added resistance. Jessica Watson-Thorp, a mother of four who was there with her twin boys, Isaac and Lucas, 15 months, says she can feel her muscles aching days after taking the class, which to her is the sign of a good workout. "Even though it's a group with different levels, [Hawi] really does try to cater to your individual level, so she'll push you if you need to be pushed. You can get out of it what you need."
"When you've had a baby, you lose so much fitness," explains Hawi. "Getting it back is something that I think concerns most women who have had a child. But people need that bit of a push. Maybe they don't have somebody to take care of the child. And some people don't feel comfortable leaving their child in a crèche or at home with a nanny. "Or they might not be able to keep up with an aerobics class just yet. I try to gauge everybody to work at their level and increase their fitness bit by bit. It's not a class that's going to be too easy if you're fit or too hard [if you're unfit]."
Mummies with Buggies is about more than getting back in shape. "The fitness is very important but the fact that these mums are getting out and about and meeting other people like themselves is equally important," says Hawi. Watson-Thorp appreciates the opportunity to get out of the house with her boys. "Once you become a mother, you do start to feel quite isolated, which is difficult at times. The main thing I like about the class is that I don't have to leave the twins at home with the babysitter, that I can take them with me and not have to suffer any 'mother guilt'."
For Maya Masri, the mother of a five-month-old boy, Jad, working out with the Mummies with Buggies group motivates her more than independent exercise. "I decided to start exercising by myself; I would take my son to the Corniche and walk, and I bumped into them running together. Seeing other mums and the group thing is nice, with a professional trainer telling you how to get back in shape. "When you go by yourself, you say, 'OK, I don't feel like going today, I'll go tomorrow, probably,' but when there's a class and there are other people that are waiting, for me it's a commitment," Masri says.
I ask Hawi how long it usually takes for new mums to bounce back like Bundchen. She advises being realistic. "You need to give yourself a year. You've got to look long term rather than short term. There's absolutely no way you're going to lose it all in the first three months." She says that controlling your fat and sugar intake, along with regular exercise, can make a big difference in losing baby weight. "Ideally, you need to be exercising three times a week, whether that's brisk walking, a bit of step [aerobics], or whatever's going to get your heart rate up."
She adds that crash dieting and trying to shed kilos too quickly is not a healthy option, either. "If you're breastfeeding, you need to have a certain amount of stored body fat so that you can supply the nutrients via the milk to the baby." Hawi advises that most new mums can start exercising six weeks after a normal delivery or 10 weeks after a caesarean section. However, this is a guideline and it is important to check with your medical practitioner before starting a new activity.
What I learnt from my session with Mummies with Buggies is that resurrecting your fitness can be a lot more fun and interactive than sweating it out in a gym, especially when leaving the baby at home is not an option. It can also play a role in building a support network of women who all have one major thing in common. The important thing is to seize the somewhat limited opportunities there are to get out of the house, even if your baby is a ticking time bomb of tears.
Mummies with Buggies runs on Mondays and Thursdays at 8:45am. The summer programme is currently underway, held at Marina Mall, with classes returning to the Corniche for the cooler seasons. The cost is Dh30, or Dh25 for members of Abu Dhabi Mums. For details, call Jo Hawi, 050 492 4587.