Exercising while pregnant is well recognised as being both safe and beneficial for both mother and baby. There are, however, some guidelines you should follow.
Exercising during pregnancy helps you to maintain a healthy weight and a good fitness level, as well as lifting your spirits and preparing you for childbirth. Research tells us that exercise improves physical and mental wellbeing, and reduces the risk of developing gestational diabetes – a disease more common in mothers who are overweight.
We’ve put together a list of some of the amazing health benefits of exercising while you are pregnant, as well as some tips to make sure you can enjoy all these benefits while still keeping yourself and your baby safe.
The benefits of exercising during pregnancy
Strengthen your cardiovascular system
Pregnancy saps your energy and can cause you to tire easily, as you divide your vigour between yourself and growing your baby. Exercise helps this by strengthening the cardiovascular system and building strong, toned muscles so your body doesn’t have to work so hard to do everyday tasks, be it the grocery shopping or a staff meeting.
Reduce aches and pains
Pregnancy isn’t exactly the most comfortable of times, and the bigger you get, the more uncomfortable you’re likely to be. Regular exercise helps to strengthen your muscles, helping your body cope with common pregnancy-related aches and pains. Stretches, such as those performed in yoga, are proven to ease back pain, improve circulation, and strengthen abdominal muscles.
Promote better sleep
Finding a comfortable sleeping position when pregnant is no easy challenge, and many mums-to-be find themselves tossing and turning throughout the night. Studies show that people sleep significantly better and feel more alert during the day if they exercise at least 150 minutes each week, but be careful not to exercise too close to bedtime, or it could have the reverse effect.
Assist you with childbirth
The better shape you’re in at the end of your nine months, the stronger you’ll be when the time comes to deliver. Giving birth is likened to running a marathon in that it requires stamina, determination, and focus. The more you have of this, the easier and faster your delivery should be.
Reduce the risk of complication
One 2012 study revealed that women who exercise regularly while pregnant are less likely to develop gestational diabetes, while in another study, women who exercised three times a week were less likely to have macrosomic babies (babies weighing more than 9 pounds at birth). Countless studies have also suggested that regular exercise reduces the chance of unplanned cesarean sections.
Speed up post-delivery recovery
The fitter you are at the end of your pregnancy, the faster you’ll recover physically following childbirth. When you’ve maintained your strength and muscle tone through your pregnancy, your body will have an easier time bouncing back to its former self.
Improve your self image
Many women struggle with their changing body shape during pregnancy. Exercising gives you the ability to control these changes (to a certain extent). No expectant mum likes to see a dramatic rise on the scales, and staying active will make you feel better about yourself.
Lower blood pressure
Blood pressure often rises during pregnancy, and while some rises are normal, too much of a rise can signal preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension). Regular exercise during pregnancy has been shown to decrease the risk of this obstetric complication.
Pregnant women’s intestinal tracts often get backed up due to high progesterone levels and a growing uterus. The result is constipation, which can be very unpleasant. Exercise helps constipation by decreasing the time it takes for food to move through the large intestine, thus limiting the amount of water absorbed from the stool into the body.
Reduce leg swelling
Your body retains more fluid when pregnant, and your growing baby puts pressure on your veins, making the return of blood to your heart difficult. As exercise improves blood flow, this can help eliminate swelling caused by slow blood movement.
Boost your child’s athletic and academic potential
According to research, children who were exposed to maternal exercise outperform those who weren’t in terms of athletic and academic performance. Another study recently explored by the Baylor College of Medicine suggests that those exposed to exercise during pregnancy are more likely to develop a lifelong love of exercise.
Keeping safe while exercising
A woman’s body changes dramatically when she’s pregnant, and this can interfere with the ability to perform some exercises. It’s important to do your research and talk to your doctor before undergoing any form of pregnancy exercise regime. Jogging and running can be uncomfortable for some expectant mums, and a change in body weight and weight distribution can alter balance and coordination, making some skill-based sports not only challenging, but potentially dangerous.
Risk of injury should always be considered, and it’s crucial to pay close attention to your rising heart rate. It’s very important as a pregnant woman that you don’t overexert yourself. It’s also important not to put pressure on a major vein called the vena cava, which can reduce blood flow to your heart and may diminish blood flow to your brain and uterus. For this reason, you should avoid any exercise that requires you to lay on your back after the first trimester.
As for individual sports, some are considered higher risks than others. Given the risk of placental abruption, any contact or potential contact sports should be avoided, or at least seriously considered before being undertaken. Horse riding and downhill skiing are two examples of inappropriate activities to undertake while you are pregnant. If you are not used to playing racquet sports, these should also be avoided, as the rapid movements and sudden changes in direction could affect your balance and make you fall.
Here are some tips for staying safe while exercising during your pregnancy.
Frequency and activity
It is recommended that for women deemed to be experiencing a ‘low-risk pregnancy’, they should participate in moderate intensity exercise for 30 minutes a day, four times a week. If 30 minutes seems too much, you can spread this out into smaller chunks by performing ten minutes of exercise three times a day.
Moderate intensity exercise is subjective and will depend on your individual fitness level, but as a general rule, sensibility applies. Straight line or stationary activities, such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling and strength training can all be undertaken safely. Other examples of moderate exercise include:
In women with pre-existing serious medical conditions or with higher risk pregnancies, exercise doesn’t have to be avoided altogether. Gentle exercise is still very important in these cases, however monitoring exertion and avoiding injury should be the primary goal.
It’s important to wear loose-fitting, breathable clothing when exercising during pregnancy, as you don’t want to overheat. Layers that are easy to peel off are ideal, and a good supportive maternity bra is a must. Choose athletic shoes that fit properly, and consider gel liners that provide better shock absorption.
Warming up helps to prepare your muscles for the exercise that’s to come, and will increase your heart rate slowly while reducing the chance of post-workout aches and pains. Aim to warm up with low-intensity exercise performed for five minutes, and repeat at the end of your workout to cool down.
It’s very important to stay hydrated when pregnant as the harder you work out, the more dehydrated you can become. Drink water before, during and after exercise, and then follow up with a glass of water every hour thereafter.
Exercise burns calories, so be sure to eat well to nourish, replenish and strengthen your body. Pregnancy requires you to eat extra calories as you near the end of your pregnancy, so be sure to factor this in against your exercise. If you’re overweight or underweight, you may need to adjust your calorie intake accordingly.
Being pregnant, you’re already susceptible to overheating, and this intensifies when exercising. It’s therefore important that you choose a cool environment in which to exercise. Remember, you’re working and moving your body, not punishing it. Exercising in high heat and humidity puts both you and your baby at risk, so avoid activities such as bikram yoga.
Safely enjoy the benefits of exercise
All women who are pregnant without complications are encouraged to participate in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises as part of a healthy pregnancy. You don’t have to be in peak physical condition, but by maintaining a good fitness level throughout your pregnancy, you can enjoy the many benefits that come with moderate exercise.
If you have any concerns or you feel a shift in your capabilities, talk to your doctor.