In the not-so-distant past, women were urged to cut down or even avoid exercise during pregnancy. Today, we know differently. Not only is it okay to participate in fitness activities during pregnancy, but doing so can have a positive impact on both baby and mother. Yet it seems that myths surrounding fitness and pregnancy just won’t go away. There are so many rumours out there, some started by popular pregnancy books, others the result of ‘old wives tales’ or out-dated advice which leaves many women very confused about what they can and can’t do! So in this short blog, I hope to shed some light on this topic and hopefully give some clarity to all of the women reading this.
What are the benefits of exercise during pregnancy?
Exercise is so beneficial during pregnancy that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends pregnant women to exercise at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week. The following are some great benefits which you will experience if you do:
- Gives you an energy boost
Pregnancy can rob you of your energy, especially in the first and last trimesters. Taking regular exercise, such as walking, can strengthen your heart and lungs, and can make you feel less tired. Also, with strong, toned muscles, you’ll need less effort to do most everyday things, whether you’re at home or at work.
- Prepares your body for birth
The better shape you’re in, the stronger you’ll be to cope with labour and giving birth. Giving birth requires a huge amount of energy and stamina, so staying active during pregnancy is good preparation for the hard work that lies ahead!
- Eases pregnancy niggles
Exercise stretches and strengthens your muscles which can help your body to cope better with some common pregnancy niggles. For example, stretching will ease any back pain, walking improves your circulation, easing the discomfort of varicose veins etc.
- Makes you less likely to get some pregnancy complications
Exercising during pregnancy may help to reduce your risk of getting pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure). Also, if you develop diabetes during pregnancy, exercise can help you manage your blood sugar levels, when combined with a healthy diet.
- Fends off pregnancy blues
Exercising can improve your mood, give you a sense of wellbeing, and help to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. Also, try an exercise designed for mums-to-be such as a pregnancy yoga class where you’ll be able to meet and create companionships with other mums-to-be while getting exercise.
- Helps you sleep better
When you’re pregnant, finding a comfortable position to sleep in at night can be a real challenge! Exercise won’t make you more comfortable at night but it will help you work off any excess energy, and may improve your sleep patterns, giving you a more restful sleep.
- Helps you stay a healthy weight
And last but certainly not least, being active on a regular basis will help you maintain a healthy body weight during pregnancy, which most women struggle with. This is important for women not only during pregnancy but afterwards in particular because you will find it a lot easier to get your pre-baby body back! Which every woman wants!
What type of exercise is best? And how much is enough?
Low impact exercise, which increases general fitness, is ideal during pregnancy. The following are some suggested activities that would be suitable and safe for expecting moms, although some of them may not work for you during the last few months of your pregnancy. Make sure you talk to your GP or a healthcare advisor before embarking on any sort of exercise regime.
Walking – One of the best cardiovascular exercises for pregnant women, walking keeps you fit without jarring your knees and ankles. It is also easy to do almost anywhere, doesn’t require any equipment beyond a good pair of supportive shoes and is safe throughout all nine months of pregnancy.
Swimming – Healthcare providers and fitness experts hail swimming as the best and safest exercise for pregnant women. Swimming is ideal because it works both large muscle groups (arms and legs), provides cardiovascular benefits and allows expecting women to feel weightless despite the extra pounds that pregnancy brings.
Low impact aerobics – Aerobic exercise strengthens your heart and tones your body. And if you take a class for pregnant women, you’ll enjoy the camaraderie of other moms-to-be and feel reassured that each movement is safe for you and your baby.
Yoga/Stretching – Yoga can help maintain muscle tone and keep you flexible with little, if any, impact on your joints. It is also extremely relaxing and there are classes available specifically for pregnant women. Even just stretching in the comfort of your own home would be good for keeping your body limber and relaxed and preventing muscle strain. Just remember to include some cardiovascular exercises like I mentioned above along with your stretching/yoga to give your heart a workout.
Weight training – If weight training is already part of your exercise routine, there’s no reason to stop just because you’re pregnant, despite what rumours might be out there! Although you should reduce the amount of weight you’re lifting, you can still do more repetitions with a lower weight to ensure that you’re still getting a good workout. If you take the necessary precautions and use good technique (meaning slow, controlled movements), weight training is a great way to keep your muscles strong and toned.
In terms of how much exercise is enough, this will be unique to each individual woman. The average woman out there who has a household to run and perhaps small children to look after, and who may also hold down a job, engages in a great deal of physical activity every day, even though it mightn’t be specific physical activities like I’ve mentioned above! Pregnancy imposes a certain amount of strain on the body, both from a physical and metabolic point of view, so rest is absolutely vital. Nevertheless, if pregnancy is progressing normally there is no reason why a woman should not continue with her usual daily duties, as well as her regular exercise regime, if she has been doing that amount of exercise for some time. This is an important point, if you are a regular exerciser anyway, you should continue to exercise. However if you didn’t do a lot of exercise before, starting during pregnancy probably isn’t the best idea! So, know you own body, know what you are capable of, and make sure to consult your GP or healthcare advisor on what sort of exercise regime would be suitable for you.
What type of exercise should I avoid during pregnancy?
Certain types of exercises and activities can be dangerous to perform during pregnancy. Try and avoid taking part in:
-Activities where falling is likely e.g. horse-riding, gymnastics or skiing.
-Contact sports such as football, rugby, basketball, soccer etc.
-Activities that require extensive hopping, jumping, skipping, or bouncing.
-Exercise in hot, humid conditions
-Heavy weight lifting that involves maximal isometric contractions – puts too much stress on the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.
-Exercises which involve lying on the stomach.
-Any activities which require rapid changes to the centre of gravity should be avoided as your balance will be affected during pregnancy e.g. vigorous racket sports such as squash or tennis.
So, for any moms-to-be out there reading this, I hope this blog has shed some light on the subject of exercise during your pregnancy. Exercise during pregnancy is now well recognised as being both a safe and beneficial practice for mother and baby. So while I would encourage all women to engage in physical activity, it is still necessary to be cautious and speak with your doctor about your specific circumstances before engaging in any sort of activity.
This article is by Coach Claire Shanahan. Sport and Exercise Scientist, and Strength and Conditioning Coach at ACLAÍ.