Research continues to show multiple benefits of exercise during pregnancy, both for moms-to-be and babies. Regular exercise can alleviate some of the discomforts of pregnancy, make labor and delivery shorter and better tolerated, boost energy and relieve stress postpartum.
Of course, it’s important that women first consult their doctors before starting or continuing a workout program during or just after pregnancy. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) recommends 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise per day on most, if not all, days of the week, unless you have a medical or pregnancy complication, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, severe anemia, bleeding or spotting, low placenta, weak cervix, threatened or recurrent miscarriage, previous premature births or history of early labor.
Because several absolute and relative contraindications for exercise during pregnancy exist, a physician’s orders should prevail. And levels of exercise may need to be modified as pregnancy progresses. But with physician approval, exercise during pregnancy is one of the best activities a woman can do to maintain health.
Benefits for Mom and Baby
Studies have shown the following benefits of exercise for pregnant women:
- Reduces fatigue and insomnia
- Increases energy and stamina
- Lowers weight gain
- Helps control swelling in hands and feet
- Decreases incidence of backaches and pelvic pressure
- Reduces incidence of leg cramps and varicose veins
- Minimizes constipation
- Cuts risk of pre-eclampsia by 35%
- Decreases incidence of gestational diabetes
- Improves posture
- Enhances mood self-esteem
- Leads to more uncomplicated, spontaneous deliveries, with less operative intervention required
- Expedites post-delivery recovery
- Helps stave off post-natal depression
And babies of exercising mothers also reap rewards:
- Better able to tolerate labor, with decreased incidence of umbilical cord entanglement and reduced meconium levels
- Higher scores in orientation behavior toward environmental stimuli (more alert)
- Greater ability to self-quiet
- Weigh less and are leaner with lower BMI
- Have increased blood volume
- Have stronger hearts
- Less prone to obesity and diabetes
- May have accelerated brain development
Pregnant women always should carefully listen to their bodies and modify or decrease workouts as necessary, particularly as the pregnancy progresses, with greater stress and demands on the body. ACOG recommends that women should stop exercising and consult her doctor immediately if she experiences any of the following:
- Increased uterine contractions
- Vaginal bleeding or amniotic fluid leakage
- Shortness of breath
- Severe headaches
- Visual disturbances
- Excessive fatigue
- Heart palpitations or chest pain
- Decreased fetal movement
- Calf pain or swelling
If you haven’t exercised before your pregnancy, take it slowly at first, beginning with 10 to 15 minutes of low-intensity exercise, and gradually adding time to reach 30 minutes per day. If you were a regular gym-goer prior to becoming pregnant, you probably can continue your routine, with physician approval, with some modifications along the way.
Ideally, include cardiovascular workouts and strength training, along with gentle stretching. Note that hormones during pregnancy cause the ligaments that support the joints to stretch, so you will be more flexible; be careful not to overdo it. Always include a warm-up and cooldown.
Also, be aware of the effects of pregnancy on your workouts, including a higher heart rate in the first trimester, increased frequency of urination due to pressure on the bladder, tendency to become hotter more quickly and reduced balance due to a shifting center of gravity as your belly grows.
Some exercises and activities are not recommended during pregnancy, including:
- Activities where falling is likely (skiing, skating, gymnastics and horseback riding)
- Contact sports such as softball, football, basketball, soccer and volleyball
- Exercise that requires repeated jumping, hopping, skipping, bouncing or running – particularly in second half of pregnancy
- Exercises that require lying flat on your back after your first trimester
- Activities that include jarring motions, rapid change in direction or could cause direct trauma to the abdomen, such as kickboxing
- Hot yoga
- Activities that could cause you to hit water with great force, such as water skiing, surfing and diving
- Scuba diving, which could put your baby at risk of decompression sickness
- High altitude workouts
Also, be sure to eat enough food to support your workouts and a growing fetus, and drink plenty of water before, during and after your routine. Don’t exercise to the point of breathlessness or exhaustion.
Pregnant women should perform exercises that they enjoy and that are well tolerated. Generally, low-impact activity feels best, but each woman should listen to her body and doctor to determine a suitable regimen. Today, there are more options than ever for low-impact workouts, including:
- Walking – This is a convenient activity that you can do outdoors or inside on a track or treadmill, by yourself, with a workout buddy or with your dog. If you already have a child, invest in a good jogging stroller so the two of you can enjoy some fresh air.
- Bicycling – Riding outdoors is safer during early pregnancy; as your belly grows, your balance declines, and you may risk a fall. Indoor cycling classes are great because you can adjust the resistance and follow your own pace. Or try a fan bike like the Schwinn Airdyne or Octane AirdyneX, where you work the entire body and determine the resistance based on how fast you pedal – plus, enjoy a cool breeze from your efforts. And standard upright and recumbent stationary bikes are comfortable during pregnancy.
- Swimming or aqua exercise – Exercise in water tones all of your muscles, provides an escape and feels great because you are buoyant and supported.
- Elliptical machine – Providing total-body workouts with no jarring to the joints, ellipticals are ideal due to their natural motion and variety of routines.
- Cross training/alternate motion machine – These machines, such as Octane’s XT-One, typically offer walking, jogging, hiking and climbing, which delivers motivational versatility. Or try the LateralX from Octane Fitness for a fun total-body blast that works side-to-side motion.
- Stairclimber – This is an excellent way to raise the heart rate, and becomes even more challenging as you gain weight. Hold the handrails for support and stability.
- Rowing – Working the upper and lower body simultaneously, rowing is seated exercise that lets you work as gently or rigorously as you want. You’re fully supported and benefit from a no-impact challenge.
- Strength training – Hit the major muscle groups with machines, free weights or accessories such as medicine balls and resistance bands. Be sure that you do not hold your breath, and avoid excessively heavy free weights and jarring movements.
- Prenatal or post-natal yoga – Meet other moms and participate in valuable strength, flexibility and balance poses. Yoga is also helpful with the mind-body connection, intentional breathing and stress relief.
- Low-impact aerobics class – Whether this is a class for the general population or geared toward a pre-natal group, exercising to music and with others can make the time fly by. Tell the instructor you are pregnant, watch your balance and modify movements as necessary.
As for post-natal workouts, talk to your doctor about when it is safe to resume. And keep up the exercise for energy, stress reduction and valuable “me-time” after the baby is born!