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Does childbirth make you stronger?

My husband has often told me I deserve a medal after giving birth to two girls in two years. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears involved with having kids, and I couldn't help but feel amused when I saw the headline - "After a Baby, a Gold?" - of a New York Times blog entry that a colleague (also a mom with two daughters) brought to my attention today. In the piece, writer David Gendelman looks at something a handful of the women competing in this year’s Olympic high jump have in common (well, besides trying to win gold): They’re all new mothers.

Is it a coincidence that these women are performing so well after childbirth, or does having children actually make you stronger? (One mom-competitor reports that she can squat "a lot more" than the 225 pounds she could before having her second daughter.) Sports medicine specialist Elizabeth Joy, MD, isn't sure about the purported performance-enhancing effects of pregnancy, but she offers one explanation for why athletes may feel so good and strong after delivery:

When a woman delivers, she still has this incredibly expanded blood volume, which declines over the next six weeks. But in that first six-week postpartum period, and particularly among elite athletes who are very fit, I bet they’re getting back to exercise pretty quickly. After their delivery, they just lost 15 pounds. They probably do feel like they have this huge engine with a much lighter load.

Benjamin Levine, MD, who teaches exercise sciences at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, also can’t attribute a single factor to postpartum strength, but he thinks perhaps parenting has a positive change on the mental perspective of these Olympic-competing moms. “It’s a major life change, and the ones that deal with it and thrive, perhaps it focuses their concentration. Maybe they have more to win for. Maybe they’re more highly motivated.”

So even though there may be no scientific evidence indicating a link between strength and childbirth, I thought high jumper Amy Acuff said it best when she described why working out seemed easier after having a baby. “I thought about how I do almost the same thing with a 20-plus pound baby all day that I did with the medicine ball,” she said.

Oh - and Hubby, if you’re reading this, a medal is nice but getting more sleep would be even sweeter.

Previously: How safe is rigorous exercise during pregnancy?Pregnant curler competing in Olympics and Pregnant and on the move: The importance of exercise for moms-to-be
Photo by Steve Fair

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