jennifer brothers
Photo: Tom Maday
Last fall life was getting the best of Jennifer Brothers. Recently married, she was working full-time as an HIV/AIDS research project director at a Chicago hospital and part-time as a research assistant at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (The research assistant job helps pay for her doctorate in public health, which she is completing at the UIC.) With all her commitments, it's no surprise Jennifer rarely saw the inside of a gym; in fact, she was in such poor shape that just a few minutes on a treadmill left her gasping for air. And somewhere along the way, for the first time in her life, she had started to gain weight. "It was a gradual thing," she says. "A pound here, a pound there"—until suddenly she realized that she'd put on 15 pounds. Her health was headed in the wrong direction.

It was her gynecologist who sounded the alarm when Jennifer mentioned during her annual checkup that she hoped to get pregnant soon. The doctor recommended that she get in shape before trying to conceive. "She encouraged me to get into a regular exercise routine now rather than after pregnancy, when it would be harder to find the time and I would have more weight to lose," Jennifer explains. Her gynecologist added that exercise is also good for reducing back and joint pain and, paired with a healthy diet, can lower the risk of complications like hypertension and diabetes.

"I was so out of shape that I didn't know where to start," Jennifer says. But a few months after her doctor's lecture, she stumbled upon a posting on Oprah.com looking for women in need of a fitness makeover. Within weeks, she was on the phone with Bob Greene, Oprah's personal trainer for the past 17 years, author of eight health books, and creator of the wellness Web site TheBestLife.com. Bob's philosophy is simple: "Exercise should be a habit, like brushing your teeth," he says. "It wouldn't cross your mind not to brush your teeth, and physical activity should be viewed the same way."

After speaking with Bob, Jennifer realized she'd need to go to the gym straight from work or first thing on weekends. "I get distracted if I'm home. It's too easy for me to spend time with my husband or get caught up doing errands." Bob prescribed a daily workout incorporating cardiovascular and strength training, and asked Katie Moran from Equinox Fitness in Chicago to oversee the makeover. (Jennifer was given a month of free training.) Bob's instructions: He wanted high-intensity cardio workouts, plus strength-training sessions to focus on her core and legs—the better to support her body during pregnancy.

For the cardio, Jennifer and Katie settled on a mix of spin classes and running on a treadmill. For the strength training, to reduce the risk of injury, Katie helped Jennifer focus on moves that utilized her own body weight as well as light weights. But four days into the program Jennifer got a surprise: She was pregnant.

Bob and Katie were thrilled for her—and for the opportunity to emphasize the importance of being fit during pregnancy. When you're expecting, Bob says, staying active is important for both your health and your baby's, though most women will need to make minor adjustments to their regular routine until their delivery date. The only change Katie made to Jennifer's program was to lower her target maximum heart rate to 140 beats per minute—a precaution to ensure proper blood flow to the developing fetus. (See your doctor to determine your own maximum heart rate.) And as her pregnancy progresses, Jennifer may not be able to do certain exercises (like those for which she'd need to lie flat on her back for an extended period of time).

Within two weeks of starting the program, Jennifer's clothes fit a little better, her stamina increased, and she felt less stressed. "Finding time for me has been the most remarkable part of getting in shape," she says. "The sky didn't fall when I left work in time to hit the gym."

Because of her pregnancy, Jennifer managed to avoid fixating on a particular size or number on the scale, and Bob says that's the right way to go. In his view, people who pin their goal to a specific result, like losing 20 pounds, set themselves up for failure—either they don't reach it, or they reach it and realize it's not the key to happiness. "The most successful mind-set you can have," he says, "is that you're making an investment in feeling better tomorrow."

See Jennifer's routine

Pregnant? Get Bob Greene's month-by-month exercise plan