The question of what exercise is best, safest or most appropriate to do during pregnancy is one I get asked a lot.
Wanting to answer this question, with facts, rather than hearsay, is one of the reasons I became interested in the field of pre natal exercise in the first place.
I make no apologies that there is very little 'wow factor' or 'sexy' about this article. It's factual and middle of the road standard, informative stuff. But it's important during pregnancy that this is precisely the type of information you digest.
Pregnancy is one of those times where it seems everyone and their aunt’s neighbour is an expert. And unfortunately, from my experience in gyms, some fitness instructors are nervous of offering information because they’d rather not admit they don’t know. So where can you go to get sound, unbiased advice?
With over 12 years experience of a pre and post natal exercise instructor, where I’ve had the privilege of sharing at least 500 different pregnancies (plus two of my own), it’s something I’m confident that know a few things about. And not just from the text books, from real experience.
So here is my very simple guide to the benefits, dos, don’ts and when-to-stops of exercise during pregnancy:
From helping with a sluggish circulatory or digestive system (relaxin doesn’t just affect joints), to giving you time/space to focus on your body and your growing baby, exercise has been scientifically proven to be beneficial for both baby and mum.
Babies have been shown to get the same endorphin (happy exercise hormone) rush as mum and studies have shown that babies of mums who exercised during their pregnancy are typically leaner than the babies of those who didn’t.
Women who exercised during pregnancy have also been shown to have shorter labours and births with less need for intervention.
Exercise can boost your energy too. Just don’t over do it (see below). And spending time now strengthening muscles and your very important core and pelvic floor can help with delivery and recovery after birth.
Targeted exercise like Pilates and yoga can help ease pregnancy niggles like back ache.
Just being in a class, with other pregnant women, gives you a support group for the early stages of pregnancy too. So you can ask questions with confidence and alleviate anxiety over symptoms or concerns.
Ask questions. If you are going to pre natal specific class, find out if they are qualified (current UK requirement is Level 3 in Pre and Post Natal exercise prescription with REPS).
Do something you enjoy. If you love swimming, keep swimming. If you are a runner, perhaps get some advice from a running coach with pre natal experience. If you try a class and the instructor doesn’t sit right with you, seek out someone else! Everyone will have a different style or angle.
Ensure you wear loose fitting clothing, drink plenty of water and stay cool. Overheating is one of the major concerns of exercise during pregnancy.
Take more time to warm up and cool down. Your circulatory system is changing daily with more blood and more blood vessels. It needs time to work its way around your body.
Eat to replenish calories expended. Now is not the time to lose weight. Maintain your energy levels by re-loading as soon as possible after exercise.
Squat and train your core. Both your abdominal wall and your bum tend to go on vacation during pregnancy. Minimize the damage by training what you can to help support your joints.
Exercise to exhaustion. Growing a person requires a lot of extra energy, so exercise for an energy boost, not for a marathon.
Stand on one leg or create more instability. During pregnancy your pelvis and joints can become unstable due to the hormone relaxin (I call it jelly pelvis). Standing on one leg, even to put your knickers on, adds to the strain on your pelvis.
Do anything too bouncy, aside from possibly making you feel a bit ‘bleurgh’ it will again, add to the pressure on already stretched ligaments, pelvic floor and connective tissue.
Do anything to increase intra-abdominal pressure like crunches or planks. Your abdominal wall is already under pressure and being stretched. There is just no point in making it work even harder.
Do impact sports or high intensity interval training.
When to stop:
If you experience any bleeding, high blood pressure, breathlessness, nausea or dizziness, stop immediately. There’s a full list of contraindications (signs that you cannot exercise) here: http://www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Obstetric-Practice/Physical-Activity-and-Exercise-During-Pregnancy-and-the-Postpartum-Period
I should keep my heart rate within a specific ‘range’ when exercising.
Everyone’s heart rate is variable, moreso during pregnancy. So rather than getting hung up on your heart rate, focus on your effort. Exercising at an intensity where you can still comfortably hold a conversation is a good guide.
I need to give up running.
Whilst it’s not something to take up during pregnancy, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG) says it’s safe to run right up until labour. Whether it feels comfortable or not is a different matter (see above on joint laxity).
I shouldn’t train my abdominals during pregnancy.
Whilst you want to give your rectus abdominus (6 pack) some time off, it’s important to still train your core to support your back and growing bump. This is where Pilates really pays dividends to pregnant mums, especially when it comes to post natal recovery.
Exercise can increase your risk of miscarriage.
There’s no evidence to support this, although some women may be advised to avoid exercise until after the 13th week of pregnancy. Always be guided by your medical professional on this. Also bear in mind that a major benefit of exercise during pregnancy is psychological. So if exercising makes you worry - it might be worth skipping it until you are more confident that baby’s going to be okay.
If you haven’t exercised before pregnancy you can’t start now.
Guidelines state that it’s safe to continue with the exercise you did before pregnancy, during the first trimester. If you did very little you might feel more confident getting stuck into some resistance training during the second trimester. But exercise like swimming, Pilates or yoga (pregnancy specific) are pretty safe to start as soon as you feel ready.
As with all exercise advice, please seek the advice of your medical professional before considering an exercise programme. All advice is my own (based on experience) for a detailed guide to exercise during pregnancy please visit: http://www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Obstetric-Practice/Physical-Activity-and-Exercise-During-Pregnancy-and-the-Postpartum-Period