Congratulations on your pregnancy! Now you can sit back, relax and put your feet up for the next 9 months, right? Not so fast! Attitudes and beliefs about prenatal exercise have drastically changed over the past 20 years. No longer is pregnancy viewed as a time to sit, watch TV and eat chocolate.
These days, maintaining and even improving fitness levels is encouraged while pregnant, especially as exercise has a number of benefits such as boosting mood and energy levels, supporting better sleep, helping prevent excess weight gain and increasing stamina and muscle strength.
Regular exercise during your pregnancy can also improve heart health and stamina, as well as overall health. Maintaining a healthy body and healthy weight gain can help reduce common pregnancy complaints and discomforts like lower back pain, fatigue and constipation and may even help make labor a little easier by improving endurance.
Before embarking on any exercise during pregnancy, it is important to first consult your health care provider. If you have been participating in a regular exercise regimen and are having a healthy pregnancy, there should not be a problem continuing with your regimen in moderation. You may have to modify your exercise according to your trimester of pregnancy.
If you have not participated in an exercise regimen three times a week before getting pregnant, do not jump into a new, strenuous activity. Start out with a low-intensity activity and gradually move to a higher activity level.
Moderate exercise during pregnancy "may give your baby a healthier start"
The best type of exercise during pregnancy:
A stroll around the neighborhood is a great way to start exercising during pregnancy. Your heart rate will increase steadily without too much impact on your knees and ankles.
- Increases your heart rate steadily and improves your heart circulation
- Keeps you flexible and limber
- Supports healthy weight gain and prevents excess weight gain by burning calories
- Prepares your muscles for labor and birth
- Will not cause you to push your body too hard.
Research shows that healthy pregnant women who exercise during their pregnancy may:
- Have a lower risk of gestational diabetes and hypertension
- Have less risk of preterm labor and birth
- Have a shorter labor process
- Be more likely to have a natural birth
- Be less likely to need pain relief
- Recover from childbirth faster.
Regular, moderate exercise not only makes for a healthier pregnancy, it may also give babies a healthier start. Research shows that when pregnant women exercise, their developing babies have a much lower heart rate. Babies of active moms may also have a healthier birth weight, a lower fat mass, improved stress tolerance and advanced neurobehavioral maturation.
Experts recommend that you exercise for 30 minutes a day, on most days. Most exercises are safe to perform during pregnancy, as long as you exercise with caution and do not overdo it.
Your pregnancy exercise regimen should strengthen and condition your muscles. Always begin by warming up for 5 minutes and stretching for 5 minutes. Following your choice of exercise, finish your regimen with 5-10 minutes of gradually slower exercise that ends with gentle stretching.
Use common sense:
- Avoid exercise that involves lying on your stomach or flat on your back after the first trimester of pregnancy
- Stay well hydrated and drink plenty of fluids before, during and after you exercise
- Avoid overheating and humidity, especially during the first trimester when the fetus is undergoing its most important growth and development
- Stop exercising if you feel fatigued, develop persistent pain or experience any vaginal bleeding; check with your health care provider if regular contractions occur more than 30 minutes after exercise (possibly a sign of pre-term labor)
- Avoid heavy weightlifting and any activities that require straining
- Avoid exposure to extremes of air pressure, as in high altitude exercise (unless you are accustomed to it) or scuba diving
- Do not increase the intensity of your workout beyond pre-pregnancy intensity level
- Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a pregnant woman of normal weight who gets less than 30 minutes of exercise a week should strive for a caloric intake of 1,800 during the first trimester, 2,200 during the second trimester and 2,400 during the third trimester.
The safest and most productive activities to perform during your pregnancy are brisk walking, swimming, indoor stationary cycling, prenatal yoga and low-impact aerobics (taught by a certified aerobics instructor).
These activities carry little risk of injury, benefit your entire body, and can be continued until the birth of your baby. Other activities such as jogging can be done in moderation. You might want to choose exercises or activities that do not require great balance or coordination, especially later in your pregnancy.
Basic exercise guidelines:
- Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes, as well as a good support bra
- Choose supportive shoes designed specifically for the exercise in which you are engaged; this will help protect against injury
- Exercise on a flat, level surface to avoid injury
- Finish eating at least one hour before exercising
- Get up slowly and gradually to prevent dizziness
- Never exercise to the point of exhaustion. If you cannot talk normally while exercising, you are probably over exerting yourself, and you should slow down your activity.
Physical changes that might affect your ability to exercise
Physical changes during your pregnancy will create extra demands on your body. Keep in mind the changes listed below and remember to be attentive to pain and discomfort and adjust activities or exercise regimen as necessary:
- Your developing baby and other internal changes increase demands for oxygen and energy
- Hormones (relaxin) produced during pregnancy cause the ligaments that support your joints to stretch, increasing the risk of injury
- The extra weight and the uneven distribution of your weight alters your center of gravity, which can cause you to lose balance more easily
- The extra weight also puts stress on joints and muscles in the lower back and pelvic area, and makes it easier for you to lose your balance.
If you have a medical condition, such as asthma, heart disease, hypertension or diabetes, exercise may not be advisable. Again, consult with your health care provider before beginning any exercise regimen.
Exercise may also be harmful if you have a pregnancy-related condition such as:
- Vaginal bleeding or spotting
- Low placenta (low-lying or placenta previa)
- Threatened or history of recurrent miscarriage
- Previous premature births or history of early labor
- Weak cervix.
Talk with your health care provider before beginning an exercise program. Your health care provider can also suggest personal exercise guidelines, based on your medical history.
The top 5 best pregnancy exercises
If your pre-pregnancy exercise levels were very low, a quick stroll around the neighborhood is a great way to start. You will get a cardiovascular workout without too much impact on your knees and ankles, and you can do it almost anywhere and at any time throughout the entire 9 months.
Swimming is the ideal exercise during pregnancy and gives you the added bonus of feeling weightless!
As your baby grows, your center of gravity will change, and you can lose your sense of balance and coordination. Walk on smooth surfaces; watch out for potholes, rocks and other obstacles. Remember to wear supportive footwear.
Swimming is an ideal exercise during pregnancy as it poses little risk of injury, and no risk of falling on your abdomen and injuring your baby.
Exercising in water gives you a better range of motion without putting pressure on your joints. Even in your ninth month, you can swim, walk, do aerobics or dance in the water. Water aerobics is great cardio. Have fun!
While swimming, choose a stroke that feels comfortable and that does not strain or hurt your neck, shoulders, or back muscles. Breaststroke is a good option because it does not involve rotation of the torso or belly. Use the kickboard to help strengthen your leg and buttock muscles.
Be careful when entering the water; use the railing for balance and to prevent slipping. Avoid diving or jumping into the water as this could cause too much abdominal impact. Avoid extremely warm pools, steam rooms, hot tubs, and saunas so as to minimize the risk of overheating.
Cycling on a stationary bike is generally safe even if you are just starting an exercise program.
Cycling helps to get your heart rate up without putting too much stress on your joints. As your belly grows, you can raise the handlebars for greater comfort. The American Pregnancy Association states that riding a stationary bike is safe during pregnancy. The bike can help to support your weight, and although your changing center of gravity makes you more likely to fall on a regular bicycle, a stationary bike reduces that risk.
Prenatal yoga classes keep your joints limber and help you maintain flexibility. Yoga strengthens your muscle system, stimulates blood circulation, and helps you relax, which may have benefits for managing blood pressure during pregnancy. You can also use techniques learnt in yoga class to help you stay calm and in control during the labor process.
As your pregnancy progresses, skip positions that really challenge your balance. In your second trimester, steer clear of poses that require you to lie flat on your back - as your baby grows, and your uterus gets heavier, it can place too much pressure on major veins and arteries and decrease the blood flow to your heart.
Also, be careful not to overstretch. Pregnant women produce more relaxin, a hormone that increases flexibility and joint mobility, it is important to know your limits and hold back slightly when stretching.
What is the difference between high and low impact aerobics? Overall, aerobic exercise strengthens your heart and lungs and helps maintain muscle tone. Low-impact aerobics excludes jumping, high kicks, leaps, or fast running. You keep one foot on the ground at all times, so you limit the amount of stress on your joints and maintain balance.
This type of aerobic exercise will also protect your pelvic floor. Too much jumping up and down and bouncing can weaken your pelvic floor muscles and increase your chances of urine leakage.
Consider joining an aerobics class geared for pregnant women. This way you can enjoy the company of other pregnant women while exercising under the supervision of an instructor who is trained to modify exercises for pregnant clients.
If you have already joined a regular aerobics class, let your instructor know that you are pregnant so they can modify exercises or advise against certain movements and poses that would not be beneficial for you and your baby.
Stop exercising and consult your health care provider if you:
- Feel pain
- Have abdominal, chest, or pelvic pain
- Notice an absence of fetal movement
- Feel faint, dizzy, nauseous, or light-headed
- Feel cold or clammy
- Have vaginal bleeding
- Have a sudden gush of fluid from the vagina or a trickle of fluid that leaks steadily (this can indicate a rupture of the amniotic membrane)
- Notice an irregular or rapid heartbeat
- Have sudden swelling in your ankles, hands and/or face, or experience calf pain or a pulling sensation in your calf
- Have increased shortness of breath
- Have persistent contractions that continue after rest
- Have difficulty walking.
Regular exercise will keep you and your baby healthy and can make for an easier pregnancy and labor, and a timely recovery after delivery.
Written by Angel J. Miller, MSN, CNM