Exercise during pregnancy has a world of benefits for both mother and child.
In the past, exercise during pregnancy was discouraged as it was thought to increase the risk of preterm birth. Recent scientific studies has proven this is not the case, and exercising whilst pregnant carries a lot of benefits.
- Increased energy – Pregnancy is naturally draining. With physiological and hormonal changes occurring to the body, these changes sap the body of energy. A regular routine of light to moderate exercise improves heart health and increases energy.
- Reduces back pain – A stronger core during pregnancy alleviates lower back pain. As the new addition to the family develops, the strain on the lower back increases due to the added weight and natural loss of strength of the abdominals as it stretches to the growth of the foetus.
- Preparation for delivery – Strong core (mainly pelvic floor) muscles can minimise time during labor and improve delivery. Although in depth studies are yet to be conducted, a small study of women found that women who exercised during pregnancy progressed through the first stage of labor sooner than their non exercising counterparts.
- Reduced stress and uplifts mood – Exercise has been proven to increase seratonin levels in the body. Serotonin is otherwise known as the ‘happy hormone’ for it’s positive affects on mood.
What you should do:
- Maintain regular exercise – 20-30 minutes a day, three times a week is recommended. Start off very lightly throughout the first trimester and be aware of bodily changes as you progress through your pregnancy. After the first trimester you may be able to add more to your repertoire depending on back health and fitness levels.
- Rest when you can – The first trimester can be a very tiring time for a mum-to-be, as a lot of your energy is used changes to your body and fetal development. Listen to your body and only exercise if you’re feeling energetic enough to handle the stresses of exercise on the body.
- Keep cool – your core body temperature needs to stay at a normal range, especially in the first trimester, otherwise it can affect your baby’s development.
- Wear comfy shoes! – Your balance will be changing (getting worse) and being comfortable is a luxury you might not have for much of your pregnancy.
- Reassess your exercise routine as you progress through the trimesters – your capabilities will change as your move through each trimester, so make sure you do exercises that are right for your body at those times.
- Wear a good supportive cotton bra while exercising to prevent overstretching and injury to the breast tissue and ligaments.
- Maintain a nutritious food intake (have an extra 1200 to 2000 kilojoules, or 500 calories, per day) and keep well hydrated (you should be drinking at least 2 litres of water a day). Remember you are eating for two!
- Maintain your pelvic floor work! – Core strength is vital to maintaining a healthy back and pelvic floor exercises will strengthen the muscle responsible for when it’s time to deliver your new family member.
- Don’t work too hard – You should be able to keep up a conversation while exercising when pregnant. Try to keep your heart rate lower than 140 beats per minute, and try not to get breathless.
What you shouldn’t do:
- Exercise in hot, humid environments – especially during the first trimester as this is the time of greatest risk to the developing baby. It is best to avoid saunas and steam baths as these increase your core body temperature and can affect your unborn baby.
- Wear high heels! Not only will they become increasingly uncomfortable, they can cut off blood flow to your (swelling) feet, aggravate back pain, and your centre of gravity will change so you may not be able to walk so well. You may also experience difficulty actually doing the exercise while wearing these.
- Exercises that involve lying on your back after the first trimester (after 13 weeks). This can limit the blood flow to your baby and lower body.
- Lift heavy objects. Or if you absolutely MUST lift things (like a toddler), brace your deep abdominals and make sure you don’t hold your breath.
Exercises to avoid:
- High impact, high intensity exercises such as running.
- Exercises or sports that falling down is a risk – e.g. horse riding, skiing, rock climbing.
- High-impact exercises. Many sports that involve running, jumping, changing direction, and any contact can become harmful further into your pregnancy.
- Conventional rectus abdominal work. Up to 30% of women can get a separation of the abdominal muscles by working their abdominal muscles too hard. Maintain deep abdominal bracing exercises such as static holds.
- Deep, wide squats, lunges, jumping, or activities where you need to change direction quickly. Due to the release of relaxin (a hormone that relaxes the ligaments of the pelvic girdle and abdominals) and progesterone, these types of exercises can do more damage than good. So just stretch gently and slowly.
- Sports or exercises where you are at risk of being hit in the stomach.
Exercises to go for:
- Low impact and low to moderate intensity exercises that won’t raise your core temperature too much. Remember to always rest if you feel you are starting to work too hard, especially in the first trimester. You shouldn’t sweat too much so as not to raise the core temperature of the foetus.
- Walking – this has to be the easiest form of exercise you can do. You can integrate a walk in with your daily routine – walk to the shops, walk to the park with any older kids, walk anywhere you need to go! Just get a good pair of walking shoes to support your feet.
- Light weights – strengthening your muscles is a good idea, as you will need to be strong for when your baby gets bigger and it takes more effort to get around, and also for when the baby is born – you’ll be doing lots of carrying, holding, and picking up/putting down that you’ll need strength for!
- Pilates and yoga – this is great for keeping fit and flexible – just keep in mind that your body changes a lot during pregnancy, so certain moves and exercises may not be suitable for you.
- Cycling – keeping up aerobic fitness is always important, pregnant or not, but cycling is good for pregnancy because it works your aerobic fitness without causing high impact on your joints. You can do this on a stationary bike at the gym, or moving on a bicycle – just be wary of falling off a moving bike.
- Swimming – another low-impact, high-aerobic exercise that is great for pregnancy. It may be best to avoid breaststroke though, as your pelvis loosens when you’re pregnant and can make the movements hard. Freestyle is probably best.
- Aqua-fitness – exercises classes in the water are great for pregnancy too. You get the added bonus of water resistance to get your stronger, as well as taking some of your weight away by being in the water. It’ll keep you cool too!
Things to Look Out For
- During pregnancy, blood sugar levels can change rapidly and some women can feel lightheaded and faint. Eat low glycemic carbohydrates about an hour or 2 before you exercise – e.g. an apple, or a banana. If you feel faint or dizzy, slow down or stop exercising and reach for a carbohydrate snack.
- Warm up and cool down slowly – this is the key to making sure your muscles don’t ache after your exercise.
- Stretch gently – your ligaments are looser than normal, so don’t overdo it
You should stop exercising and consult your doctor if you experience any of the following:
- Vaginal spotting or bleeding
- Joint pain
- Headache, blurred vision or visual changes
- Abdominal pain
- Low backache
- Changes in baby’s movements
Exercise during pregnancy carries a world of benefits. Follow these guidelines to exercise safely during pregnancy. A medical consultation is highly recommended before undertaking any form of exercise during pregnancy.
- Regular exercise at least three times per week with light to moderate intensity. Exercise consistency and intensity is highly dependant on the the individual’s exercise history.
- Keep cool
- Keep it low impact
- Exercise for the maintenance of health and for a better delivery NOT to break personal bests!