A group of mothers takes part in a mutually supportive post-baby workout programme in Abu Dhabi.
The class is called RPM - revolutions per minute - but it could stand for rapidly pumping mums. "I'm warning you," says Leonard Tikitau, the group fitness manager at the Abu Dhabi Country Club, as he adjusts his own bike. "It's not going to be easy. But how you feel will be different." An appreciative hoot goes up, especially from the front row of women, four of whom have had babies in the past two years.
Perched on a stationary bike at the end of the row, Liz O'Sullivan tightens her auburn ponytail and gives a brave smile. The former personal trainer admits she was up four times in the night with her year-old daughter. "She wanted to nurse every two hours!" she says, then laughs. "I almost didn't make it in this morning." Much has been written about getting in shape after childbirth. In August, a US study found that women who have just given birth are better equipped physically to handle the demands of vigorous exercise. Put it down to hormones. A surge of them - progesterone, oestrogen, even testosterone - in the first trimester increases muscle strength. Then there's relaxin, which loosens up the hip joints for birth and makes one more limber.
It's not just a hormonal rush, either. James Pivarnik, a kinesiology professor at Michigan State University, who has studied female athletes during and after pregnancy, also found that blood volume increases by 60 per cent. This means the body is able to send up to 30 per cent more oxygen to the muscles. Hence the "baby boost", which has made splashy headlines: Catriona Matthew, the Scottish golfer, won this year's British Open 10 weeks after giving birth. Liz McColgan took bronze in the World Cross Country Championships 11 weeks after her baby was born. Paula Radcliffe, a British distance runner, scored her second New York Marathon win in 2007. Just 10 months earlier she had given birth to a baby girl.
Christina Aboyoun, a fitness instructor at the Abu Dhabi Country Club, actually caught a glimpse of Radcliffe at the New York Marathon in August. "Paula is an amazing woman," she says. Someone could easily say the same of Aboyoun, who ran that race as a half marathon and is currently in training for the full Dubai Marathon in January. With two children under three - a daughter aged two, a son aged one - Aboyoun is tiny, fit and a true believer in exercise after childbirth. "I run, cycle, do Body Balance, Body Pump [the club's Les Mills exercise programmes], weights and resistance training. I exercise five days a week. I'm a type-A personality all the way," she says.
Even with that drive, Aboyoun, who works as the executive director of a lung-transplant programme for an Australian hospital, knew that she couldn't just pick up where she'd left off. So no baby boost? "To be honest, no," she says, echoing many women's real-life experience. To ease back in, she started walking at night. "I gave birth in December, so it was cool enough to walk at that point." Two months later she rejoined the club's Body Balance classes - a mix of tai chi, yoga and Pilates. "It just felt so good to be exercising again," she says.
The important thing, as she advises the new mums in her classes, is "just to get yourself moving again. And the best time to start is now". The women in today's RPM class are moving faster and faster now, their legs a blur on the pedals. "OK, turn up the tension another notch," Tikitau instructs into his microphone. "This is going to burn 700 calories per class." "Yay!" everyone choruses. One of the front-row mums shakes her head. This is pain. But in the next moment she's smiling and bouncing to the music. "OK," says Tikitau, "we're taking that heart rate up three times. Hey, keep that tummy in!"
Any exercise programme for new mothers, Tikitau explained earlier, has to include a core of complementary programmes. "You can't just bring in one class. And you need a woman who is a mother herself. It can't be me. I'd be apt to say, 'OK, ladies, I know you've just had a baby, but, hey, let's go!'" In Cindy Hradec, these exercising mums have found a teacher, cheerleader and friend. Instructor for the eight-week Body Lines fitness programme - RPM is just one component, led today by Tikitau as guest teacher - Hradec is pumping and perspiring alongside her students. Her shoulders glisten with sweat, but she never stops yelling out encouragement.
Hradec's daughters are older (nine and 12), but she empathises fully with new mothers. "My own fitness is an ebb and flow thing," she admits, remembering her post-delivery self. "There I was eight months later, breastfeeding, but still with my baby weight and still on the couch." Like Aboyoun, Hradec had been an athlete, teaching group fitness for 15 years and working as a personal trainer for six. The baby boost? "I don't think I experienced a post-birth surge of energy," she says. "But I do remember feeling like I'd hit a bottom. Here you've given almost two years to this little person - and you love them- but I was ready to move beyond that. It was more a psychological boost than a physical one."
Hradec works on that level with the 15 women enrolled in Body Lines. Along with 45 minutes of really hard exercise in each of the thrice-weekly sessions - "They're yelling at me: 'We hate you'!" she laughs - the end always includes time to share stories. Each woman also keeps a food journal and finds a partner to text-message daily. This last weekend's journal assignment was to write five things they were thankful for.
Though this may seem like more demands for already busy women, Hradec believes it can actually offset some of the pressures new mums face. "We expect so much of ourselves. Here we have a new baby, plus work, the house, our husband. Oh, and you have to eat healthily and exercise, too." All of which leaves little time for yourself. One of the benefits of a programme such as this one is that it affords time out of the house, a chance to connect with others. "As an expat if you don't get out, your walls can begin to collapse on you," says Hradec, who e-mails her students after every class.
The only thing about to collapse in Tikitau's RPM class are 15 tiring bodies. "Thank you, ladies," he purrs into the microphone. "Be good. We're going home- come on." A big "ahhh" goes up as they stop - only momentarily - to slug back water. Noreen Gerhard in the back row looks flushed but not defeated. At 43, she gave birth to Grace, now 22 months. Although she experienced an initial burst of energy, a move to Abu Dhabi when Grace was seven-and-a-half months old - "We celebrated her birthday in a hotel," she says - soon led to a sedentary existence. "But this autumn," says Gerhard, "I got the inspiration to be jolted. If you want to be punched back into shape, this is it."
But going from nothing to a class like this hasn't been painless. "When I got here the first day I wanted to cry because I realised how really out of shape I was. Then I wanted to puke, I was so out of breath." Two weeks later, she claims to feel stronger already. With plans to repeat the Body Lines programme in January, she laughingly admits: "My muscles are still in shock: 'What are you doing to us'?"
Group fitness classes may not be the way to go for everyone. Maggie Kinsella, who has a 15-month-old son and works for Etisalat as Yellow Pages manager, bought a spinning bike for home, takes her favourite RPM class at the club once a week and trains with Tikitau privately twice a week. "I needed a trainer," she explains, "someone who would be here at the club waiting for me, someone who would push me harder than I'd push myself."
"I was absolutely enormous after I gave birth," admits Kinsella, a licensed gym instructor who had always been fit. "It's been a difficult road back. The first time on the treadmill after my baby's birth, I could only do a minute and a half. I was absolutely devastated." Now she's not only back up to an hour, she's just weathered many up-and- down-climbs of the stairs at the club's skydiving tower. "Lenny had me climbing at 1pm in 35°C heat," she says, laughing. "My face was purple."
Faces have not quite reached that hue yet, but perspiration is flowing as Tikitau's class winds down. He has the women stretch their arms, their shoulders, their hamstrings. "Breathe in through the nose, out through the nose," he tells them, as serious as he is about the cool-down as he's been about the rest. He's also serious about something else. Being fit, being healthy for your children, your husband, yourself - all very important. But he also encourages new mums to take two to four months off: "Spend some time with your child," he says. Christina Aboyoun feels the same way: "I exercise five days a week, but the weekend is for my family. My priority is my family."
For more information about the Body Lines programme, call the Abu Dhabi Country Club (formerly the Abu Dhabi Health & Fitness Club): 02 657 7777. Or check out the club's website: firstname.lastname@example.org.