Yes, you shall move! Being fit, strong and active while pregnant will benefit you, as well as your baby. Physical activity is a vital part of living a healthy lifestyle. Be healthy, be happy! The healthier you are, the less likely you will experience complications during your pregnancy. And the more likely you will be able to achieve a natural pregnancy and birth, free of unnecessary medications and interventions (this is what you want!). Of course, this is not the best time to take up kickboxing, rugby or attempt your first ultra-marathon. Be smart about your training routines, and choose something that is safe and, most importantly, fun.
Benefits of exercise during pregnancy
The list of benefits for women who exercise while pregnant is endless. Physical activity is linked to improved general well-being and mood1. Moderate exercise is even recommended as part of the treatment plan for women suffering from perinatal depression2. Other benefits include improved maternal weight control, maintenance of general fitness, reduced risk of development of gestational diabetes and increased strength and flexibility 3,4. The American College for Sports Medicine (ACSM) reports a 40% reduced risk of preeclampsia for physically active women4.
An amazingly large number of pregnant women (more than two-thirds) experience back pain, and almost one-fifth experience pelvic pain. The pain increases with advancing pregnancy and interferes with work, daily activities and sleep. These unwanted conditions could be prevented with an adequate amount of physical activity5,6.
When you shouldn’t exercise – contraindications:
There is a difference between finding an excuse to avoid exercise and not being physically able to—your body knows best! When practiced safely, exercise during pregnancy is great and has its benefits. However, this is not the time to prove yourself or push for a new personal best. You are responsible not only for your own health and well-being, but also for your unborn baby’s. And trust me, you don’t want to get this wrong.
Exercise during pregnancy is not advised when suffering from certain conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, risk of premature labour (incompetent cervix, multiple pregnancy, and ruptured membranes), growth retardation or preeclampsia. If you are unsure whether you can or should exercise, discuss your condition with your medical practitioner7.
When engaging in exercise, you should stop if any abnormal symptoms occur. This can include pain, especially pelvic or abdominal pain, contractions, vaginal bleeding, dizziness or unusual shortness of breath7.
Continuing your pre-pregnancy exercise program
Exercise has become a vital part of the lifestyles of many health-conscious women in Australia. Expecting mothers are often insecure about continuing their exercise programs during pregnancy. The last thing they want is to harm themselves or their unborn babies. But unless there are any medical or obstetrical complications, there is no reason to stop working out7.
Your unborn baby is already teaching you one crucial first lesson—to listen to your body. Welcome the changes, as they are part of the amazing transition into being this new baby’s mother. It is important to acknowledge the individual anatomical and physiological changes of a woman’s body during pregnancy. You might have to adapt your exercise routine early on, or not much at all until halfway through the pregnancy. This depends on a few factors, your individual pregnancy and the type of exercise you choose included.
Starting an exercise routine when pregnant
Today, there is a lot of evidence for the benefits associated with moderate exercise during pregnancy, even in formerly inactive women8. If you feel inspired to engage in some activity while you are pregnant, go for it! Try it out even if you have never exercised before falling pregnant, or just haven’t done so in a (long) while. Be smart about the exercise you choose. Walking or swimming might be a great start, or you could join some pregnancy yoga classes. If you feel that individual guidance would work better, think about working with a personal trainer who has a holistic approach and experience in training pregnant women. There are so many options available for you!
Exercising during pregnancy – what is different?
Gaining body weight
Naturally, you will put on some weight. The average weight gain during pregnancy is 10-15kg. (This is about 20-25% of the total body weight for many women). The additional weight will make certain exercises, such as running, feel uncomfortable. Your centre of gravity also changes, and it can be more difficult to find your balance and engage in sports that require a rapid change of direction (such as roller-blading or touch football). If it does not feel comfortable or safe, find an alternative option. Maybe swimming is better for you than running during this time. Or perhaps you need to reduce the intensity of your training.
Loosening of body joints
Your body does an amazing job preparing for the growth and birth of your baby. The hormone relaxin helps to prepare the pubic area and cervix for birth. However, it also loosens other joints and ligaments in your body. This will make you more prone to injury and instability. If you are engaging in sports that require jumping, rapid change of direction or excessive stretching, you will have to take special care of this.
Your resting and maximal heart rate will change when pregnant. If you are used to training towards certain heart rate levels with a heart rate monitor, you may need to adjust your routine during pregnancy. Rather than focusing on a target heart rate, pregnant women should use rated perceived exertion (RPE) scales and aim for more “moderate level[s]“7.
Decrease in blood pressure
Your pregnant body is doing an amazing job providing for yourself, your baby and the growing placenta. It is normal for your blood pressure to fall around the fourth month of pregnancy. To avoid dizziness, it is best not to change your position too quickly from lying down to standing up. For example, after doing exercises or stretches that require lying flat on your back, sit up for a few seconds before fully standing to move on to the next exercise.
Many women experience pelvic floor weakness during pregnancy, as the baby’s increasing weight is pushing down on the pelvic floor muscles. This can make jumping, running or skipping really uncomfortable. In this case, it is best to avoid them. Instead, do some exercises that will help to strengthen your pelvic floor.
Changes in energy levels
Each woman experiences pregnancy differently. For one woman, every single one of her pregnancies may be different. Please remember that looking after both yourself and the baby is the most important (and rewarding) job you can have. If you feel really tired and fatigued, it might be best just to go for a walk instead of playing soccer. Whilst engaging in some gentle exercise may improve your general well-being and mood, it is also okay to stay at home and rest. Be your own judge and exercise smart!
Is the baby at risk when I exercise?
It is common sense that participating in an iron woman event, or competing as a professional boxer, might not be the best choice when pregnant. Engage in a safe sport and exercise at a reasonable level. Exercising during pregnancy is considered safe for your baby as long as you modify the intensity of your workouts. Base this on your gestational stage and general well-being8.
Whilst there are no studies to date that show a correlation between exercise and negative outcomes for the foetus, there are some aspects you need to be mindful of. Sport Medicine Australia recommends reducing the intensity of exercise in the third trimester and limiting exercise to three sessions or less per week7. To avoid over-heating, the authority further recommends to avoid working out in the heat of the day. Be sure to stay well-hydrated.
Staying strong and fit during your pregnancy is gratifying. It will not only make your pregnancy more enjoyable, but the extra vitality just might be what you need for the upcoming birth. If you manage to maintain a certain level of fitness during your pregnancy, it might also be easier to re-engage in exercise after giving birth. When working out, listen to both your body and your baby. Use your motherly senses and intuition. Exercise is a great way to get in tune with your own body, and connect with the baby. Whichever exercise you choose to engage in while pregnant, remember that you are a member of an awesome team now (and your ego is not part of it)!
(1) Polman R, Kaiseler M, Borkoles E
Department of Sport, Health and Exercise Science, University of Hull, Hull, UK.
The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness [2007, 47(1):103-111]
Women’s Mental Health Center, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Journal of Affective Disorders [2009, 112(1-3):1-10]
. DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2008.06.017
(3) SMA statement the benefits and risks of exercise during pregnancy. Sport Medicine Australia. J Sci Med Sport. 2002 Mar;5(1):11-9.
(4) Dempsey, F C.; Butler, F L.; Williams, F A.(2005). No Need for a Pregnant Pause: Physical Activity May Reduce the Occurrence of Gestational Diabetes Mellitus and Preeclampsia. Exercise & Sport Sciences Reviews: July 2005 – Volume 33 – Issue 3 – pp 141-149
(5) Pennick V, Young G. Interventions for preventing and treating pelvic and back pain in pregnancy. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001139. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001139.pub2.
(6) Sadr, S., Pourkiani-Allah-Abad, N., & Stuber, K. J. (2012). The treatment experience of patients with low back pain during pregnancy and their chiropractors: a qualitative study. Chiropractic & Manual Therapies, 20, 32. doi:10.1186/2045-709X-20-32
(7) SMA: Exercise in Pregnancy – Fact Sheet. Sports Medicine Australia
(8) Kagan KO1, Kuhn U.(2004). Sports and pregnancy.Herz [2004, 29(4):426-434]