Pregnancy is one of the most exciting times of a woman’s life.
However, it can also be one of the most daunting as her body undergoes many changes to support the growing baby and prepare for birth. Pregnancy can also be a confusing time for women with so much conflicting advice on what they can, can’t and should be doing. As physiotherapists, our pregnant patients often ask us whether it is safe to exercise during pregnancy and what exercises are most appropriate. The short answer is, yes, it is safe to exercise during pregnancy, providing you follow some basic guidelines.
Let’s talk first about some of the changes a woman’s body goes through during pregnancy.
In order to support the demands of the growing baby and prepare the body for labour and birth, there is:
- an increase in body weight (approx. 10-15kg)
- loosening of ligaments due to the presence of the hormone relaxin to prepare the body for labour and delivery
- an increase in resting heart rate and decrease in maximal heart rate
- a decrease in blood pressure due to the development of blood vessels to supply the growing placenta
- an increase in blood volume, haemoglobin and VO₂ max to increase oxygen supply to the placenta
Due to the extra load placed on the body, the weight of the growing uterus and the expanding tummy, pregnancy can also cause weakening of the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles.
With all the changes happening to the body during pregnancy, it is important to make sure our bodies are fit and strong enough to adapt and cope.
Exercise during pregnancy not only provides all the regular benefits of exercise, such as improved physical fitness, maintenance of a healthy weight and enhanced psychological wellbeing, but a whole range of additional benefits.
Some of these include:
- increased endurance
- improved posture
- increased body awareness
- less fatigue
- less physical discomforts associated with pregnancy
- reduced risk of gestational diabetes
- improved muscle tone
- improved body image
But, let’s be real!
We all know that what you care about most is how we can make the labour and birth easier! So…how can exercise during pregnancy help this? According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, exercise during pregnancy has been show to result in:
- shorter active phase of labour
- less forceps and caesarean births
- faster recovery following caesarean births in physically fit women
- faster return to pre-pregnancy fitness and healthy weight
- increased ability to cope with the physical demands of motherhood
Anything that is going to make labour quicker and easier is definitely worth a shot!
So now that we know about how exercising during pregnancy can benefit you…
Where do you start?
First thing to know is that it is perfectly safe to exercise during pregnancy in healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies. For women who were previously active and exercising regularly prior to becoming pregnant, it is safe to continue that form of exercise with modifications where appropriate. We’ll talk more about this later when we get to guidelines and precautions. It is also safe to begin a new exercise program during pregnancy, providing you are cleared to do so by your doctor, and the exercise program is appropriate.
Guidelines for Exercising While Pregnant
The most important message in regards to exercising during pregnancy is to be guided by your body. Sometimes rest is just as important as exercise, so if you are feeling tired or aren’t feeling up to it, then rest. Following is a list of safe activities during pregnancy:
- stretching (with caution as there is already increased laxity throughout your body during pregnancy)
- exercise in water
- specific pregnancy exercise classes
Running and strength training are also safe to continue for women who have already been doing these activities prior to becoming pregnant. However, it is highly recommended that you seek the advice of your trainer or physiotherapist to assist you in modifying these exercises appropriately as your body changes.
Activities to avoid during pregnancy include:
- contact sports or activities with a high risk of trauma
- activities with a risk of falling
- competition sports
- exercises that involve lying on your back (particularly after 16 weeks gestation)
- activities that involve jumping, changes in direction and excessive stretching (the presence of the hormone relaxin means that your joints are looser and therefore more susceptible to injury during these types of activities)
Even when partaking in safe activities, you should still be careful to:
- avoid raising your body temperature too high
- reduce the intensity of your exercise on hot or humid days
- avoid lifting heavy weights (except in the case we talked about previously)
- don’t exercise if you are ill or feverish
Despite the many benefits to exercising while pregnant, there are some cases where you absolutely SHOULD NOT exercise during pregnancy, such as:
- risk of premature labour
- cardiac disease
- vaginal bleeding
- placenta previa
- hypertension (high blood pressure)
- intrauterine growth retardation (when the baby is not growing at a normal rate)
- extreme obesity or extremely underweight
The most important thing is to LISTEN TO YOUR BODY, and always check with your doctor before commencing an exercise program.
Now that we have armed you with the information you need, don’t forget to have fun and enjoy this wonderfully exciting time in your life!