At one gym in New York City, you will find a group of women who all have something in common: They are either pregnant or have newborns.
The gym, Fit Pregnancy Club, or FPC, focuses exclusively on helping pregnant and postpartum women exercise safely in a supportive, welcoming environment.
It is the brainchild of two moms, Carolina Gunnarsson and Joanie Johnson, who saw a problem and created a solution.
Gunnarsson, a mom of three, was scared to exercise during her first pregnancy and ended up gaining more weight than she planned. She also had a difficult labor and delivery. For her second pregnancy, she said she hired a personal trainer, but ended up with postpartum complications as a result of her workouts.
By the time of her third pregnancy, Gunnarsson had been introduced to Johnson, a former professional dancer and personal trainer, through a mutual friend.
Gunnarsson said the difference between her first two pregnancies and her third, during which she trained at FPC under Johnson's guidance, was "night and day."
"Coming out of this pregnancy, I was in better shape than I have been in my entire life," she said. "I was doing classes up until the day I gave birth, and feeling great with no pain."
Johnson noticed when she was pregnant with her daughter, now 2, the lack of safe workouts available to pregnant women, in addition to a lack of information.
"Women are just accepting, 'Oh, I’ve had a baby. I have to pee my pants every time I sneeze,' or 'I just have to deal with this pain,'" she said. "We have so much re-educating to do that, no, this is not the norm and we can prevent it."
Johnson used her own research and fitness background to develop her own workout, which is now FPC’s signature workout.
"It's a total-body workout that is low-impact and high-intensity," she said. "It's a way to strategically strengthen the muscles that you need for an easier pregnancy, better delivery and more complete postpartum pregnancy."
The key focus at FPC, according to Johnson, is on a low-stress way of breathing, using the diaphragm.
"It's about moving with a different intention and focusing on your core and pelvic floor as opposed to just going into class and cranking it out and sweating and forgetting about your body," Johnson said. "Everyone really should be using these breathing and moving mechanisms that we're teaching these women."
The instructors at FPC not only have fitness backgrounds, but also specialties in pregnancy. Among them are three doulas, a pelvic floor specialist, a childbirth educator, a prenatal nutrition specialist and a lactation counselor.
"Prenatal certification for trainers is not enough," Johnson said. "We're really training women to move at a functional level and retraining their breathing mechanism and the way they’re activating their core."
Is a gym for pregnant women necessary?
Physical activity during pregnancy is endorsed and supported by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, so a place where women can feel they are doing it safely and being supported is a "fantastic idea," said Dr. Jennifer Aquino, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Langone Health.
"Often times, I feel like pregnancy is treated like this crazy disease," she said. "I often have patients who will say, 'I went to the gym and they told me I should get on the bike.'"
Aquino added, "I tell patients, 'If you exercise on a routine basis, you can continue to exercise at the same level you normally do."
Women who did not exercise routinely before pregnancy are safe to start, but should exercise with a moderate intensity that allows them to talk at conversational pace, according to Aquino.
A pregnancy-specific gym like FPC can play a "super important" role in helping reduce anxiety in pregnant women, Aquino noted.
That was the case for Dr. Rachel Goldman, a New York psychologist who is pregnant and attends FPC classes.
"I've seen huge progress in my confidence," she said. "Whenever I go to the gym and I do my workouts I always kind of question myself. 'Am I doing this safe? Is it effective? Is it OK?' And here, there is no question about it."
Goldman added, "Things that I'm learning in the class, I’m actually taking home to do on my own, to practice, which I know is going to help me have an easier labor and delivery."
No matter where they are exercising, pregnant women should remember to stay well-hydrated and eat a snack before a workout. Exercise should be stopped if she feels symptoms like dizziness, painful contractions, headaches or weakness, according to Aquino.
Pregnant women should check with their doctors before starting any exercise routine and should avoid strenuous exercise if they have conditions that make it unsafe, she added.
"It's really individual," Aquino said about developing a pregnancy exercise routine. "Women often have questions regarding safety for the baby and the baby can tolerate the mom doing a strenuous exercise really well for 30 minutes or so."
Gym becomes a community for women
In addition to providing a safe and effective place to workout, FPC has become a place where new moms and pregnant women can socialize and learn.
"The goal is for us to be empowering these women and strengthening their bodies for motherhood, but they’re also getting this really amazing community out of it," Johnson said. "They can ask all their questions and they feel supported."
FPC hosts workshops on childbirth, breastfeeding, postpartum recovery and more.
"We get a lot of moms who are pregnant for the first time and are kind of scared about what they can and cannot do because there is just so much information out there," said Gunnarsson. "We feel like we have a huge job to educate and hopefully change something along the way."
Clients often take a class and then stick around to talk with other expectant or new moms, according to Johnson and Gunnarsson.
"FPC isn't just a gym, it's a fabulous community," said Goldman, the FPC client. "I've met so many new moms throughout different stages that they’re in. I've also really gotten to know some of the instructors and it's just very warm and a welcoming environment that I hope to continue to come even after my pregnancy."