When you become pregnant there’s a minefield of advice out there about what you should and shouldn’t be doing. Whether it’s from a google search, a well meaning relative or your midwife, you’ll have no shortage of opinions about what exercise you should, or shouldn’t, be doing.
When I found out I was pregnant (the day after running the Santa Rosa Marathon…!) I knew it was important for me to keep active during pregnancy, both for my physical and mental health. Running and exercise are a big part of my life and identity and I didn’t want to lose them as soon as I became pregnant. Of course, I wasn’t able to exercise to the same degree as before, but keeping up some sort of routine throughout the whole process was really empowering for me and allowed me to embrace my pregnancy and the constant changes that were happening to my body.
(Little did I know…!)
My attitude to exercising in pregnancy was to do what I found comfortable, listen to my body and follow the advice of evidenced-based medicine. This worked well and I was able to keep relatively fit and active until delivery. I ran regularly until 26 weeks- after this it wasn’t comfortable or enjoyable, so I stopped and started walking lots instead. I also did Barre workouts throughout the whole of pregnancy (mainly home workout DVDs) which definitely helped me stay toned and also concentrated on my pelvic floor.
(Hiking in the Grand Canyon with Charlie at about 14 weeks pregnant)
What are the benefits of exercising in pregnancy?
Keeping fit during pregnancy is known to be hugely beneficial for both you and the baby. Regular exercise can help with some of the common pregnancy ailments such as tiredness, leg swelling, lower back pain and varicose veins. It can also help to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and depression and help you sleep better.
Regular exercise can also help to prevent medical conditions such as gestational diabetes and high blood pressure, and if you do develop gestational diabetes it can help to improve your blood sugar levels.
Furthermore, regular exercise helps to prevent excessive weight gain during pregnancy. If you exercise while pregnant, you’re more likely to continue exercising once the baby arrives making it easier to lose weight. Returning to pre-pregnancy weight between pregnancies helps to reduce the risk of obesity in later life.
It’s also shown that women who do strength conditioning exercise during pregnancy tend to have a shorter labour time and fewer delivery complications.
What sort of exercise should you be doing?
(Hiking on Angel Island at 26 weeks)
During pregnancy you should try and do both aerobic exercise and strength conditioning. Aerobic exercise elevates your heart rate and includes exercises like swimming, running and brisk walking. Strength conditioning involves slow, controlled movements such as weight bearing exercises.
The amount of exercise you do depends on how much exercise you were doing before pregnancy. If you were exercising regularly, you should be able to continue at the same intensity without any adverse effects for you or the baby, whereas, if you weren’t active before pregnancy you should build up the amount you’re doing gradually. It’s recommended you begin with no more than 15 minutes continuous exercise three times per week, increasing gradually to a maximum of 30 minute sessions four times a week to daily.
As the pregnancy continues, you’ll gradually be able to do less which is completely normal! Exercising in pregnancy is about keeping fit rather than setting PBs.
What exercises should you avoid?
There are certain exercises which could cause harm to you or the baby and should be avoided during pregnancy. These include:
- Any exercise where you are lying on your back after 16 weeks
- Contact sports where there is an increased risk of being hit in the stomach, such as rugby, boxing or martial arts.
- Exercises where there is a possibility of falling or losing your balance, such as horse riding, downhill skiing, ice hockey, gymnastics and cycling. During pregnancy, your joints become less stable and your centre of gravity changes too as your bump grows. If you have a high impact fall you could risk trauma to the abdomen, and you’re also more likely to pick up an injury due to the increased laxity of you joints.
- You should avoid scuba diving for your entire pregnancy
- You shouldn’t exercise above 2500m until you are acclimatised, which may take several days.
Are there any risks associated with exercising in pregnancy?
There are some risks associated with exercising during pregnancy, but most of these are easily avoided. The risks include:
- Over- heating
It’s important not to overheat during pregnancy as it can affect the baby’s development, especially during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. When you’re pregnant, your body temperature increases more than it would do normally so to ensure you don’t get too hot you should drink plenty of water before and during exercise, avoid over-exerting yourself (especially in the first 12 weeks) and avoid exercising in a hot and humid climate until you’ve acclimatised, which may take a few days.
If you’re not sure how to tell whether you’re over- exerting yourself, use the ‘talk test”- you should be able to hold a conversation while exercising. If you can’t, it’s probably better to slow down a little.
From the experience of myself and friends, the idea of doing anything too strenuous in the first trimester was off the cards anyway- so for me, most of these things were easy to avoid!
- Low blood pressure
After 16 weeks of pregnancy, the growing baby and uterus presses on some of the large blood vessels in your abdomen, which can effect how well the blood is pumped around the body, and even effect the blood flow to the placenta. With this in mind, avoid doing exercises where you’re lying on your back after 16 weeks.
- High altitude
At high altitude the flow of blood to the uterus is reduced, and decreases even further if you’re exercising, so avoid travelling to high altitude, and if you do, leave plenty of time to acclimatise before exercising.
- Increased risk of injuries
During pregnancy your joints become much looser due to hormonal changes. The benefit is that it makes your pelvis looser in preparation for birth, but the downside is you’re much more likely to injure your other joints because they are less stable. Make sure you warm up and cool down properly and avoid sudden changes in direction. Some people need to wear pelvic supports, but I’d suggest discussing this with your doctor/ midwife/ physiotherapist, rather than just buying one off the shelf.
When should you stop exercising?
If you feel unwell or have any unusual symptoms, then stop exercising and contact your doctor or midwife. Unusual symptoms could include dizziness or feeling faint, headache, shortness of breath before exertion, difficulty getting your breath whilst exercising, pain or palpitations in your chest , pain in your abdomen, back or pubic area, pain in your pelvic girdle, weakness in your muscles, pain or swelling in your leg/legs, painful uterine contractions or preterm labour, fewer movements from baby, leakage of your ‘waters’ (amniotic fluid), vaginal bleeding.
All this advice is for women with no pre-existing medical conditions. If you have any known medical problems, it’s best to discuss what exercise is best for you with your midwife or doctor before commencing a new regime.
I hope this has been helpful. It would be great to hear your experiences of exercising during pregnancy, so feel free to share your thoughts below!
- Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists: Recreational Exercise in Pregnancy: Information for You. Published September 2006
- BMJ 2011;343:d5710