Many mums-to-be worry about how much exercise is safe while carrying a child. Find out how to stay active during your pregnancy.
Every expectant mum’s priorities are different, and exercise might not be at the top of everyone’s list. That’s understandable - working out for two isn’t easy!
However, there’s a great deal of sound evidence that highlights the role exercising can play in creating a healthy, safe pregnancy for you and your baby, so it’s certainly something that you should consider. To help you make an informed decision, we’ve looked at:
- Why exercise during pregnancy is important
- How much exercise you need
- The safest and most effective ways to exercise
- The sports and exercises you should definitely avoid
Let’s get started!
Why is it important to exercise during your pregnancy?
By staying active, you can keep you and your baby healthy, as well as helping your body face the challenges pregnancy brings. The advantages below are by no means an exhaustive list, but they’re certainly enough to get you started:
Improve your mood
Pregnancy can be draining, and from time to time this may get you down. Studies have shown that the endorphins released when we exercise can make all of us feel better, pregnant or not.
Whether it’s worrying about your pregnancy or battling aches and pains, many mums-to-be find it hard to nod off. Exercise is a good way to use up some energy, while keeping your joints and muscles active will help soothe any aches.
Just make sure you leave around four hours between exercising and going to bed, to allow your body plenty of time to wind down.
Manage stress and anxiety
Stress can stop you sleeping and creep into your waking hours too. It’s natural to worry about your baby, but there are many exercises you can do that will focus on relaxing your muscles and dealing with any anxieties you have.
It’s thought that the hormonal changes associated with pregnancy can make constipation more likely. Pelvic floor exercises can help keep these muscles strong and ease your digestion.
Reduce appearance of varicose veins
During pregnancy, you have more blood travelling around your body to support your growing baby. Varicose veins occur when blood collects there and causes them to swell.
As exercise increases your heart rate, your blood will be pumping quickly around your body and there’s less chance of varicose veins.
Prepare yourself for all the lifting
Once your baby is born, he or she is going to need carrying around a lot. You might as well get your arms ready to deal with the strain!
Give yourself less to do to regain your figure
If you’re keen to regain your figure after your baby is born, then exercising while pregnant will likely be on your agenda anyway. This is good, as staying as fit as you can will mean you won’t leave yourself with a mountain to climb when you get back to your regular exercise routine.
Prepare your body for the physical challenge of pregnancy and labour
Carrying a baby around for nine months is no easy task. Your back, in particular, can come under a lot of strain. Giving birth also puts a lot of pressure on your pelvic floor muscles, which support your bladder, bowels, uterus and vagina.
There are gentle exercises you can do throughout your pregnancy to get your body as ready as it can be for the task ahead, such as yoga and pilates.
Have a healthier baby
Research from a 2010 Kansas City University study suggests that exercising during pregnancy will increase the likelihood that your baby is born with a lower, more stable heartbeat. Similar studies have also claimed that exercise will help your newborn avoid medical problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
Meet other mums going through the same thing
Having someone to talk to who knows what you’re going through can be invaluable. The social side of exercise is a happy side effect for many mums.
How much exercise should you get?
Before we start, it’s important to address the one factor that can seem like the biggest hurdle when it comes to staying fit - time.
Many of us find it hard enough to fit in gym sessions as it is, never mind throwing a pregnancy into the mix. We all have other commitments, such as work and family life, so the trick is to be realistic about how much you can fit in.
Setting an unrealistic target could have a damaging effect in the long term, as you’re more likely to miss this goal and regard your efforts as a failure.
If you’re after a guideline, it’s recommended that mums-to-be get around 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. That equates to around half an hour, five days per week.
This doesn’t necessarily need to be an organised class, or a pre-planned activity. It doesn’t even need to be one half-hour block. It can be as simple as walking the dog, or taking the stairs when you would normally have used the lift.
If you weren’t exercising regularly before you became pregnant, the prospect of starting now can seem like a daunting task. Indeed, you shouldn’t suddenly start an overly challenging exercise programme that you’ve never tried before.
However, it’s possible to ease yourself into this and build up your exercise levels gradually. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists suggests starting with three 15-minute sessions per week.
Best exercises for pregnant women
There’s no substitute for care and common sense here. No one knows your body better than you, so you should only tackle exercises that you know are within your capabilities.
It’s important to get a good mix of aerobic and strengthening activities. We’ll list plenty of them below, but first let’s identify why these forms of exercise are useful.
- Improves your general fitness
- Raises your heart rate to encourage oxygen flow, which makes muscle cramps and varicose veins less likely
- Improves blood flow to the placenta
Meanwhile, strengthening exercises:
- Improve your posture and balance
- Keep your pelvic floor muscles strong, which will be helpful during and after labour
- Reduce your risk of developing postnatal complications such as stress incontinence
When it comes to choosing specific sports and exercises, there are plenty of things you can do, such as:
Swimming and aqua aerobics
When you’re swimming, the water will support your body weight. You can also go at your own pace and you can’t fall and hurt anything, so this is one of the gentlest, safest forms of exercise during pregnancy. You do need to be careful about the kind of stroke you do, as some, such as breaststroke, may place more pressure on joints that are already doing a lot of work.
Cycling (on an exercise bike)
Cycling is fantastic anaerobic exercise, there’s no denying that. However, as your pregnancy progresses, the possibility of falling or being knocked off your bike means it’s safer to use an exercise bike if you can. This will give you all the benefits and none of the risks!
Jogging may be possible early on in your pregnancy, and doing so won’t harm your baby. However, by the middle of your second trimester, it’ll likely become too much of a struggle as your baby really begins to grow.
Instead, get used to a brisk walk as one of your best forms of anaerobic exercise. The best thing about this is that it’s easily incorporated into your daily routine - for example, you can do this on your way to work.
The meditation aspect of yoga can help you destress at a time when you really need it. There are plenty of poses that can help with the physical side of pregnancy, but equally there are many that will be too difficult for a pregnant woman to achieve safely.
Try to find a prenatal yoga class where the content is already tailored for pregnant women. If you can’t find one and choose to join a regular class instead, it’s really important to tell the instructor so that they can give you an exercise plan that’s both achievable and safe.
Dancing is a great way to exercise, whether you do so with friends and family or in an organised class. However, like yoga, there are certain types of dance you should steer clear of.
Stick to dances where your feet are on the floor at all time, to reduce the risk of taking a tumble. Gentler dances such as salsa and ballroom dancing are ideal, while street dance, hip hop and the Charleston are a bit too lively for the time being!
It’s entirely possible to lift weights while you’re pregnant, but as you’d expect, you should proceed with caution.
You shouldn’t be aiming to increase your muscle tone at this point, any weight training you do will be purely to maintain your current condition. You’ll likely need to switch to lighter weights, and certain lifts, such as free weights or anything where you have to lie on your back, may not be appropriate.
Pelvic floor exercises
A strong pelvic floor is one of the best ways you can look after yourself during your pregnancy. It’s these muscles that are stretched during labour, and if you don’t look after them, they can take much longer to return to their original strength. This can lead to post-pregnancy problems such as stress incontinence.
There are a number of stretches and exercises you can do to help strengthen your pelvic floor. These involve repeatedly tensing and relaxing your muscles in the area several times a day, which will slowly build up your strength for when your body needs it most.
There are many exercise classes available that cater solely for pregnant women. However, if you join a class that’s not pregnancy-specific, make sure the instructor knows that you’re pregnant, as you may need to be given slightly different instructions from the rest of the group.
You can always speak to a doctor if you have any worries. However, there are certain forms of exercise that you should definitely steer clear of during your pregnancy.
Is there anything you should avoid?
It probably goes without saying that not every exercise is suitable for pregnant women. As frustrating as it might be having to give up something you enjoy, there are many sports that you’ll simply need to avoid in order to ensure your baby stays safe.
Anything that could result in you falling, or getting hit in the stomach, will need to stay on the backburner until after you’ve had your baby. While you’re pregnant, your body produces high amounts of a hormone called relaxin, which softens your ligaments and tendons. This makes it easier to suffer an injury like a twisted ankle, so you have to be careful.
Sports you’ll need to avoid include:
- Contact sports and ball games - E.g. football, rugby, cricket, hockey.
- Martial arts - For obvious reasons, sports such as judo and kickboxing are not at all safe while you’re pregnant.
- Sports that rely on balance - Your centre of gravity changes during pregnancy, which can make you a bit unsteady on your feet. That rules out sports such as skating and gymnastics. Cycling isn’t advised after 16 weeks, as the risk of falling off is too great. An exercise bike is an acceptable substitute.
- Running and jogging - Once you reach 20 weeks, your baby is likely to be too heavy for your knees and hips to take the strain of your usual jog around the park, so switch to walking instead.
- High intensity sports - Horse riding and water skiing are just two sports where a fall could cause a lot of damage to you and your baby.
- Mountain climbing - not only is it far too strenuous, there’s also a risk of altitude sickness.
- Scuba diving - activities like this put your baby at risk of issues like decompression sickness
However you choose to exercise, you still need to be aware of any danger signs that will tell you it’s time to stop. If you notice any of the following symptoms, see a doctor to see if it’s safe for you to continue with your exercise programme:
- Trouble breathing, heart palpitations or chest pain
- Dizzy spells
- Any vaginal leakage or bleeding
- Stomach or pelvic pain
- Pain or swelling in your legs
- A drop in your baby’s level of movement
Dehydration is also a risk, as your body temperature increases when you’re pregnant. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water.
We’ve already talked about knowing your limitations during your pregnancy. It can be easy to to get swept up in the need to stay active, but you shouldn’t:
- Try and maintain the sort of fitness level you’d need to run a 10k - it’s not realistic.
- Exercise so much that you feel exhausted - the key word here is ‘moderate’. The ‘talk test’ is a good way to judge - if you can hold a conversation while you’re exercising, you know there’s little chance of you overdoing things.
- Exercise outside during hot weather.
- Continue with the same level of exercise throughout your pregnancy - you will naturally need to lower your activity levels when you reach your third trimester.
- Exercise if you’re not feeling well - missing one session won’t hurt, so rest up until you feel better.
- Do any exercise that involves lying on your back after the first 16 weeks. This is because the foetus has become so large that it could press on veins carrying blood to the heart.
Additionally, you need to speak to a doctor before starting an exercise plan if:
- This is not your first pregnancy and you have had issues previously, such as premature birth or threatened miscarriage.
- You have health issues such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
- You are carrying more than one baby.
Got Questions? See a Doctor
When it comes to your pregnancy, peace of mind is a very valuable thing. If you’re at all unsure about which exercises are safe for you, see one of our experienced GPs today.
They’ll listen to your plans and offer suggestions where needed that will ensure you can stay active during your pregnancy without causing harm to you or your baby.