Katie Bressack remembers walking into a mommy-and-me workout class last year wearing an Athleta tank-top with an opening at the side that allowed for easy access if she needed to breastfeed her 10-month-old identical twin boys.
By the following week’s session, nearly half the women in the class had snapped up the same tank top having chased Bressack down for the details.
Bressack’s experience not only speaks to the dearth of available fitness apparel for women in their pregnancy and postpartum months (or years), but the bond so many of the 85 million mothers in the United States — and millions more around the world — have had to build with one another in their quest to find solutions to unmet needs.
The good news for women who are listening to the current prevailing medical advice that encourages them to engage in regular exercise during pregnancy and beyond is that more brands in the fitness space are recognizing the role they play in helping women safely and happily do so.
“In general, it’s really great to see corporations thinking about women’s health and just women in general,” said Bressack, who is a certified holistic health coach focused on women’s hormonal wellness. “There’s so many different stages of a woman’s life that I think it’s really important to have the conversation at a high level and then having actual things that people can purchase that will help them feel supported.”
She continued, “There’s a lot of supportive undergarments for when you’re recovering [from giving birth] which are super amazing and helpful. But I haven’t seen a lot of athletic wear for pregnancy and postpartum — at least not mainstream.”
Worth the Wait?
When it comes to pregnancy and postpartum in particular, medical recommendations and public discourse have shifted quite dramatically over the years — which can explain, at least partially, why lines from dominant athletic forces are just now making their way to market.
Since at least the 1950s, and for several decades that followed, women were strongly advised against exercise in general with medical experts citing issues of fatigue, overexertion for the expectant mother and birth defects or even fetal death as possible consequences. More recently, particularly since the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published their recommendation for exercise in 2002, medical opinion has swung sharply in the other direction — of course, with varying beliefs regarding the appropriate kinds of exercise as well as discretion for each individual woman’s health status.
“Physical fitness is incredibly important in pregnancy: The physical release of endorphins helps to regulate mood, and exercise helps to drive glucose into the cells, regulating blood sugar levels. Patients report better sleep as well,” explained Dr. Leslie Apgar, a board-certified OBGYN. “These days, especially during the pandemic, we all need help with our mental health. Exercise provides such a boost to the mood and emotional state that can wildly vacillate with pregnancy hormones. The physical fitness that is maintained in pregnancy provides for easier deliveries and recoveries afterward.”
Still, Dr. Apgar said many women continue to feel skittish about exercise during pregnancy perhaps swayed by some in society who view “pregnancy as a disease” — or leaning on the outdated advice of some loved ones.
But mega brands like Nike and Adidas — with their reputation for innovation as well as trend-leading product — could have immense power in shifting the narrative.
“Normalizing pregnancy and removing the stigma that may still surround exercise during pregnancy is key,” explained Dr. Apgar. “Having a great line of targeted gear designed especially for pregnancy and postpartum is incredibly long overdue, and will be incredibly well-received. Being able to direct the patients to such lines will instill confidence in both parties that they are receiving the best gear available and will minimize anxiety surrounding making these kinds of choices.”
In other words, just the availability of maternity fitness apparel from two of the athletic industry’s most trusted brands can serve as a confirmation to women — and the world — that exercise is appropriate and can be done safely during pregnancy.
The Power of Innovation
Nike said it spent three years “meticulously” investigating barriers to sport and fitness faced by women in their childbearing stages. The lead-up to unveiling the line that includes a sports bra, pull over, tank and tights priced between $45 to $85 saw the brand enlist a design team made up of mothers and moms-to-be as well as apply data from over 150,000 body scans of women around the world.
The scans helped Nike determine how the body grows during pregnancy: For example, the tank, bra and tight were stretched upwards of 17 hours to their 100% max to ensure the fabric recovered to its original form. The brand also spoke with scores of “every day women” as well as 30 elite athletes to gain insight into the diversity of needs among women.
“At Nike, we’re listening, learning and innovating through inclusive design to be there for all stages of a woman’s sports life,” said Jenna Golden, Nike Inc. director of communication for North America. “We believe our expertise in sports science is not only new- it’s needed- in maternity apparel. Every product detail in the Nike (M) collection is designed to adapt to a woman’s changing body before, during and after pregnancy.”
Adidas, meanwhile, said it collaborated with a group of women who were all in different trimesters to craft performance tops and tights from” lightweight, high-stretch fabric that’s breathable, comfortable and supportive.”
The brand’s so-called Aeroready fabric helps wick away moisture to keep women dry and cool — which can be tougher in pregnancy due to increased body temperature.
“Looking around at the market we could see that for women carrying, they just were not being catered for. Yes, there are maternity ranges, but we wanted to combine comfort with our signature performance technology so those wearing it can feel confident that the collection will perform no matter the workout and no matter the stage of pregnancy,” explained Aimee Arana, GM of Adidas Global Training, of the collection with took 18 months from conception to launch. “ If apparel doesn’t feel comfortable or offer support where it’s needed, it can really affect the athlete’s attitude towards working out or staying active. That’s why we looked at how the body changes daily throughout pregnancy, to create one outfit that performs and fits throughout each trimester. It was important the fabrics and performance materials we chose could stretch and grow as the body does whilst carrying and postpartum.”
With pieces priced from $25-$45, the line also gives a nod to sustainability — making use of its Primgreen fabric, which is made of recycled materials, such as plastic, adding a sustainable element to the new maternity performance-wear collection.
According to Matt Powell, VP and senior industry advisor at The NPD Group Inc., beyond the much-needed support it can offer women, Nike and Adidas’ move to enter the maternity market marks a natural and important evolution of both brands as they aim to corner the women’s market — a feat that has so far challenged many athletic labels.
“If you’re committed to servicing and supporting women shoppers, you have to support her all the time,” said Powell. “And for many women, motherhood is a period of time when they simply can’t find the products that they want.”
Powell said that while he doesn’t “have a sense of how big” the maternity fitness opportunity could be, it’s vital that brands identify all the ways that they need show up for their target demographic because when they do, rewards are reaped on both sides.
While both lines have a smaller assortment to start, they each have plans to expand in the months ahead with Adidas indicating it will aim to go deeper into the trendy-side — planning a maternity line within its Stella McCartney collaboration in the not too distant future.