They’ve been building momentum for months now, but this weekend (Saturday, February 22) is the official launch of Chapters, the Abu Dhabi-based pre- and post-natal fitness movement, with an event aptly named Fitness & Soul. We spoke to co-founder Sarah Al Nowais about what went into launching Chapters – and what they are hoping to achieve for moms and moms-to-be living in the capital.
Why did you start Chapters?
Jehan Al Sairafi, my business partner, and I are both mums of two who were looking to stay fit throughout our pregnancy as well as wanting to get back safely into exercising postnatally. There are plenty of pre-natal yoga and pilates classes around Abu Dhabi, but we were looking to maintain our strength training in a safe environment where you didn’t feel the need to ask questions about either the effectiveness or safety of the exercises. We found there was a gap in services that cater to newly postpartum women or the time between having a baby and feeling strong and confident enough to join a regular fitness class. There are things women need to take into consideration before jumping back into their pre-pregnancy routine such as rehabilitating their pelvic floor, strengthening their core, watching out for weaker joints due to hormonal changes or, in my case for example, sorting out hip discomfort lingering on from pregnancy. Many mums accept what you might call the side effects of having kids – such as incontinence, for instance – becoming the norm. But they shouldn’t be the norm. Women should not feel they have to accept that their lives are going to be uncomfortable when there are people who can help them become healthier and more confident. There’s no reason you can’t go trampolining with your kids or get back to your running without a fear of leaking or some other postpartum-related issue.
How did you go about creating the company?
Fitness played a big role in both our lives as we were growing up and the changes a woman’s body goes through in pregnancy and beyond was fascinating to us. We did our research and trained as personal trainers specializing in pre-natal and post-natal training. We are also currently focusing on postpartum core correction. We trained and worked with physiotherapists, midwives and dieticians to try and absorb as much information as possible to provide our clients with the best comprehensive care that they deserve.
What is your mission?
Our mission is to increase awareness of the benefits of exercise during pregnancy for both mothers and babies, as well as the need for post-natal rehabilitation for a safer return to exercise and daily activities. Growing a baby and then taking care of one takes a toll on the body and the mind. We aim to equip mothers with a broad range of accurate information and reliable services to help navigate through these times – these important Chapters in their lives.
We do advise pregnant women to seek approval from their healthcare provider before starting any exercise routine. There is however a catch. For a long time, exercising in the first trimester of pregnancy was discouraged. Research now proves that there is no harm in continuing your regular physical activity as long as your pregnancy is considered low-risk. Unfortunately, some doctors hesitate to recommend these new guidelines and that might be because there is a lack of trust in pre-natal and post-natal trainers. So it is especially important to know your trainer’s credentials before you start training.
What gaps do you see for women?
I left hospital after my first birth with no information on how to recover from a C-section, or what I needed to do to rehabilitate those layers of muscle that had been cut through. The second time I had a vaginal birth but still left hospital with no guidelines on what to expect as normal or not.
There is a lack of information and education around women’s health in general and in particular concerning the pre-natal and post-natal period. There is also this pressure to have a wonderfully easy and comfortable pregnancy and then a superhuman ability to bounce back after baby arrives. Our organs have had to rearrange themselves to make room for our little one, we’ve had to push a human out of our bodies or layers of muscle have been cut to enable us to do so. But we’re supposed to act as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened! There’s also a culture of not being open about ‘women’s issues.’ Many women we encounter don’t know they can see a pelvic floor specialist or a woman’s health physiotherapist to check their pelvic floors or to look out for diastasis recti. Countless women suffer from incontinence, a feeling of heaviness, painful relations with their husbands…. the list goes on.
What kinds of things do you hear from other mothers?
I’ve never met a mother who knew exactly what she was getting into. No one expects motherhood to be as hard as it is. It is both physically and mentally exhausting. It was refreshing to hear a pediatrician at one of Danat Al Emarat’s antenatal class say that mothers also need to be asked how they are feeling when they come in for their children. Overnight, women go from being responsible only for themselves to being fully responsible for a tiny human who requires all their and other people’s energy and attention. We want mums to know it is totally fine not to be over-the-moon happy and “together” all the time.
Lack of sleep is a big one. You can’t pour from an empty cup. When we lack sleep we don’t eat well and we don’t have the energy to look after our basic needs, let alone find time for things that make us feel good, such as exercising.
This is why we offer mothers the possibility of bringing their babies to class. They can bring a trusted familiar carer or use a nanny service they can book through us. We also offer personal training at home if that is more convenient and organize weekly community walks, which is the perfect opportunity for mums to get some air, some light exercise with their kids and socialize with new mums who are probably going through the exact same experience.
We want to be there for our mothers and we encourage them to call or message us with any questions they have, whether they train with us or not. It is important that mums have the support they need to look after their little ones.
What advice would you give new moms?
Ask for help. Taking time for yourself is not selfish. Many of us, myself included, put pressure on ourselves to spend all or most of our time with our kids. But during that time, our minds are almost certainly elsewhere – thinking about that workout we want to fit in somehow or that phone call we need to make or simply how exhausted we are. It is so much more productive to take that time out for yourself so that when you are with your kids you can be fully present and in a positive mood!
Which brings me to exercising. When the mum guilt kicks in, remember, it is important to stay healthy and strong for yourself but certainly for your baby, too. Those endorphins will give you the energy boost you need to keep going, especially on those tougher days. We always say that exercise post-natally is about re-energizing and not exhausting yourself. Light movement with a focus on breathing, light core work, walking and stretching is more than enough to get those happy hormones flowing and set you on your journey to a smoother recovery.
Like most mums, we came across a few obstacles that slowed our journey to becoming stronger. Actually, our initial goal was to get back to our ‘old selves’ but we quickly realized that wasn’t even a possibility. We are now mums of beautiful souls, so why would we choose to go back when we can move forward and aspire to be much more than we were before?
Finally, we know it can be a little discouraging when you realize how much physical strength you’ve lost in the process and how much work you need to put in to reach your future physical goals. Some of us may even be a little embarrassed to join classes we once enjoyed. Our bodies have gone through a lot so give yourself time, take it day by day and before you know it, you’ll reach even further than expected. We have an inspiring mother-of-four joining our Casual Conversations at our launch event who could hardly jog around her 1.3 kilometer compound after having her third baby and is now an ultra-marathon runner.
How important is movement for mothers?
Movement is incredibly important for new mothers, for both their physical and mental health. Mothers tend to spend a good deal of time sitting in the first couple of weeks post birth, what with round-the-clock feeding and perhaps because of discomfort from giving birth, whether it was vaginal or by C-section. It is important to move for recovery, slowly and mindfully, encouraging the blood flow but also to get those feel-good hormones flowing in.
How about engagement with others?
The early postpartum days are quite isolating. Babies are feeding around the clock, mums are tired, most of us don’t feel comfortable in our post birth bodies. However the longer we allow ourselves to stay in that situation, the harder it is to get out of it. This is possibly the main reason we started our community walks. The combination of meeting new mums and getting some movement and fresh air is uplifting.
Where do you hope to take this movement?
After I gave birth to my daughter, my mother asked me if a physiotherapist had come in to see me. Apparently that was routine the days when she gave birth and is also usual practice in some European countries. My hopes are that this movement will lead to opening up communication channels and continuing collaboration between maternity experts including, but not limited to, obgyns (obstetricians and gynecologists), midwives, doulas, psychologists, physiotherapists and specialized trainers, providing mothers with the best care and information that is both accurate and reliable.
In terms of progress in this area, a couple of things have happened recently. Firstly, we’ve partnered with Danat Al Emarat to offer bi-monthly pre-natal strength training classes and informational sessions on the benefits of exercise throughout pregnancy. Secondly, our most recent clients had first gone to see women’s health physiotherapists before coming to us for specialized training, which proves that we are raising awareness and we are beyond happy to know that we are having a positive impact.
What can adults expect from your launch event?
We will be sampling all our classes at our newly refurbished studio on the top floor of the spa, starting off with the pre-natal chapter, including pre-natal pilates, strength and yoga, and going all the way to our more advanced Stronger class and ending with our signature Mobilize, Activate & Stretch class (MAS). The studio overlooks a play area on the terrace, allowing mums to enjoy the classes while their little one is discovering the world outside. We encourage participants to bring along a carer the kids are familiar with. If that’s not possible, we will have a nanny service on board to help. We will be holding Casual Conversations led by experts at the majlis sponsored by Danat Al Emarat. The topics include Mother & Child: Health & Bonding, Women’s Physical & Mental Health and Life After Baby: Redefining Yourself.
Last but not least, we all need some delicious food and pampering by Anahata spa. There will be express head, neck and shoulder massages, mummy and me manicures and more.
What about children?
Kids can also enjoy a range of activities in the spa’s garden with My First Gym, including soft play time, a developmental, hip hop and ballet class. Yellow Submarine Nursery will lead science experiments, sensory play, makaton songs, arts and crafts and story-telling. In addition, we have The Tub for Hydrotherapy and Baby Massage offering mini baby massage demonstrations throughout the day. Finally , we’re very excited about our very own Maha Sartawi leading a fun kids yoga session.