Exercise During Pregnancy: What You Should Know

Wednesday, January 17, 2007 - 5:20pm

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

For most mothers, pregnancy tops the list as one of the most exciting and miraculous experiences in life. Growing another being inside of you is a tremendous responsibility, one that is likely to have you searching for the “right way” to handle it, if there is one.  When it comes to exercising during pregnancy, there are many opinions about what kind and how much is appropriate. Whether or not you seek advice, you will get it. Being familiar with the current guidelines offered by medical professionals will help you filter this advice and stay on the right track for a fit and healthy pregnancy. 

Why exercise during pregnancy?

Exercise produces endorphins that improve mood, which is particularly important during pregnancy when you are experiencing heightened hormone levels. Exercise also helps prevent excessive weight gain, which is both emotionally and physically beneficial.  For most women, it is difficult watching the scale creep up to 25-40 pounds higher than their normal weight. Avoiding weight gain above the recommended amount will keep you feeling and looking your best as your baby grows. In addition, women who gain excessive weight during pregnancy are more likely to develop gestational diabetes, which can be very dangerous for you and your baby.  Finally, aerobic exercise can relieve stress and build the stamina needed for labor and delivery, perhaps even making your labor shorter and less painful. 

An American study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology reported that women who continued running or aerobic dancing during pregnancy enjoyed labors about 30% shorter than women who stopped exercising. Women who maintained a regular exercise program also required less labor stimulation and fewer epidurals, episiotomies and cesarean deliveries. Though there is no guarantee that exercising during pregnancy will result in a shorter or easier labor, it undoubtedly can help you cope better with whatever labor has in store for you.

How much exercise should a pregnant women aim for?

You should never embark on an exercise program during pregnancy without clearing it first with your doctor. If there are no medical reasons to avoid exercise, pregnant women should exercise three to four times per week for 30 minutes at a moderate intensity.  If you have been exercising prior to becoming pregnant, it will be easier to continue throughout your pregnancy. If you did not exercise before, you can still reap the benefits.  Start slow, maintaining a level that does not cause pain, shortness of breath or excessive tiredness. You may then slowly increase the intensity of your activity as long as you are still comfortable.

Recommended activity for pregnant women

Despite the general consensus that a healthy pregnancy should include exercise, some women still choose not to exercise because they are afraid of causing problems in the pregnancy. However, by choosing your activities wisely, you will reap the benefits of exercise without putting yourself or your unborn child at risk. Avoid any activities that put you at high risk for injury, such as horseback riding or downhill skiing. Similarly, stay away from sports in which you could get hit in the abdomen, such as kickboxing or soccer. Especially after the third month, avoid exercises that require you to lie flat on your back, because this can restrict the flow of blood to the uterus, which could be dangerous for your baby.  The following are the best forms of exercise for pregnant women: 

Aerobic exercise is recommended for pregnant women

Aerobic exercise increases strength and muscle tone, which can help relieve backache and constipation. It also improves circulation and the ability to sleep soundly. The type of aerobic exercise you choose depends on what is most comfortable for you. If you were a runner before becoming pregnant, you may still find running comfortable. Some lower-impact aerobic exercises are swimming, stationary cycling, the step machine or low-impact aerobics classes.

Weight training can help you during labor

Weight training increases muscle tone, which can help you during labor and delivery, as well as facilitate a quick return to your pre-pregnancy figure. However, you should stick to lifting light weights and using many repetitions. Lifting very heavy weights can compromise blood flow to your uterus.

Yoga will ease your birthing process

Yoga emphasizes breathing, relaxation, muscle strength and body awareness, all of which will ease your birthing process. Choose a yoga class that is designed for pregnant women to avoid certain traditional postures that are not appropriate during pregnancy.

Pilates is very popular for pregnant woment

Pilates focuses on toning muscles and improving flexibility, and is fast becoming the most popular exercise choice among pregnant women. As with yoga, choose a class that caters to pregnant women.  

Exercise during pregnancy: safe but fun

While the safety of you and your unborn child are of utmost importance, you must also consider what you like to do. If you choose a safe activity but don’t enjoy doing it, you are not likely to stick with it. If your usual activities are not comfortable for you while you are pregnant, use this as an opportunity to try something new.  You may discover an activity that will complement and improve your exercise routine for years to come.