In a quiet suburban neighbourhood on Kiambu Road, Nancy Chiuri steps out of her house with her workout paraphernalia.
Between her left ribs and arm, she tightly holds a yoga mat. An eight-kilogram kettlebell hangs on her hand. A spring-like resistance band dangles on her neck while her other hand struggles to secure a 15kg anti-burst slip resistance exercise ball.
Her five sons, all under the age of 10 years, enjoy the show. She wears a Duchene smile that complements her chartreuse yellow tank top boldly embroidered ‘Mama Fitness Kenya’ on the front.
“I used to do my workouts at the gym, but now I exercise at home to watch over my children as I teach them by example. The youngest is four years old,” she chuffs.
Her brood are all separated by four to five months. She always desired a big family, but the idea of long intervals between pregnancies never appealed to her. Instead, she says she fancied raising her children almost simultaneously.
“I am a career woman. I worked in the humanitarian space at Dadaab (refugee camp) for seven years, then moved to Nairobi. At some point, I took a six-year break to raise my children,” the 35-year-old explains.
During the career break, the idea behind Mama Fitness Kenya, through which she helps women bounce back by caring for the mind and body, came to her.
But that’s not where her fitness journey began.
“When I was a little girl growing up in Mombasa, I ate almost everything. I especially enjoyed viazi karai [whole fried potatoes], maamri [pastry] and other oily Coastal region cuisines. As you can imagine, I was chubby. I was given nicknames and bullied for it by no less than teachers who mocked my physique,” she recalls.
This was enough motivation to start working out, and Nancy soon found solace in various school games. The mother of five says she was one of the finest point guards during her high school and university days when she played basketball.
“I used to play with the boys, and they would really push me hard. Within a short time, my body had snatched to the point my parents started worrying if everything was okay with me because they were used to a chubby girl,” she says.
After landing the humanitarian job in Dadaab, Nancy married an accountant, and soon, her family began to swell. With her busy schedule, she continued playing basketball occasionally. She began weight lifting to keep her fitness level up until she couldn’t anymore when she conceived her first child.
Everything, she says, changed with the arrival of her first son.
“I struggled postpartum. The weight gain was crazy, shooting from 58kgs to 88kgs. I also started having acne flare-ups. It was stressful, and it didn’t help that I had a long-distance relationship because my husband works out of the country,” Nancy pauses to catch a breath.
She continues, “My mental state was definitely not okay. It’s these experiences that birthed the idea of Mama Fitness Kenya. I didn’t like how my body looked, and then I had all these things going on in my mind, but I wasn’t getting the help I needed. I had to find a fix.”
Mama Fitness Kenya has helped more than 500 postpartum mothers regain their groove.
So, how does she do it?
“How I run Mama Fitness is that I have assembled a team of experts. There is a fitness coach, a counsellor, and a physiotherapist who help in various aspects,” she says, noting that even though she is not a certified fitness trainer, she is working on it [certification].
With her first postpartum, Nancy conducted extensive research to keep her body weight in check as soon as she delivered. She says this wealth of knowledge and the services offered by certified experts have seen new mothers seek out Mama Fitness Kenya.
“After my first pregnancy, I started shooting my postpartum workouts, sometimes with my sons, and sharing the content online. Soon, I was getting inquiries,” Nancy explains enthusiastically.
It can be tempting for new mothers to exercise aggressively to shed the extra kilos quickly. Nancy, however, cautions that such a workout regime could do more harm than good.
After undergoing labour, a woman’s core and pelvic floor muscles are weak, so straining them may cause health complications such as urinary and bowel issues.
“The key with postpartum workouts is to engage in less impactful exercises. After my pregnancies, I wasn’t doing anything crazy because I had the knowledge not to do anything that would affect my back, my core and the pelvic floor,” says Nancy.
The same level of care, she notes, should be exercised during pregnancy.
“I have always worked out even when pregnant because I have always been active. I lifted heavy weights. But it’s important to note that there are permissible workouts for each trimester,” she says, cautioning that there is a risk of causing injuries and even losing a pregnancy if women who don’t have a fitness history go hard on their workouts.
This is why pregnant mothers who approach Mama Fitness Kenya for training must have written approval from their doctors.
“I tend to shy away from pregnant women unless we sign a consent document and you have your doctor’s written approval.”
She observes that for any postpartum mother, the main issue after delivering is never necessarily the weight gain.
“For the many mums I have worked with, the core and the pelvic floor are the major issues they struggle with. Once you have a baby, you will have a pouch, then there is the fupa (fat under public area) down there, or if you don’t have the pouch, you will have the diastasis recti (abs separations). Having an abs separation is not good because now your core is weak, and your core supports the back. If you don’t work on strengthening the core, it might lead to complications later.”
Nancy always recommends plank workouts to begin rehabilitating the core. “The pelvic floor muscles always weaken once you get a baby, and to fix that, you need to indulge the pelvic floor muscles to strengthen them again.”
Providing a safe space
Aside from body fitness, the humanitarian worker notes that Mama Fitness Kenya offers postpartum mothers a safe space to open up about sensitive issues about their body changes that many shy away from discussing with their spouses or doctors.
“Sometimes when a mum has a difficult delivery or a bad tear, chances are that they will develop urinary incontinence, where she could be having a cough or a sneeze only for urine to leak. That’s because the pelvic muscles have weakened.
Many mums would have this condition but wouldn’t want to talk about it for fear of being shamed, and this is where we come in, win their trust and help them know what the ideal exercises to engage in during pregnancy or after delivery,” says Nancy.