Exercise During Pregnancy

AndieM.Ed., RD, LDN, CLC, RYT-200

Read time: 6 minutes

What to know about exercising during pregnancy

  • Exercise is beneficial to health throughout pregnancy, unless contraindicated

  • Prenatal exercise can also relieve common pregnancy discomforts

  • Which exercises and stretches are recommended, and which are not

If you have a normal, low-risk pregnancy, you can engage in safe prenatal exercise from conception until delivery.1,2 The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise per day during pregnancy as long as you are cleared by your provider to engage in activity without limitations.1,2

How will exercise change throughout pregnancy?

In early pregnancy, when you may be experiencing fatigue and nausea, exercise may be the last thing on your mind; however, try to at least do some gentle stretching and strengthening exercises and some walking every day.

As your energy likely picks up in the second trimester, be sure to get up and move! You don’t need expensive equipment or a fancy facility to get a great workout. Daily walks with some moderate strength training and stretching interspersed throughout the week are effective in supporting overall health and muscle tone.

As you approach your due date, you may find that your exercise routine needs to be modified even more to accommodate the growth and weight of your baby and the impact on, among other things, your balance, bladder, and energy.

Benefits of prenatal exercise

Exercise in all stages of our life can help enhance your mood, improve posture, improve sleep quality, promote relaxation, strengthen your bones and muscles, as well as help reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.14,15

During pregnancy, exercise can help to relieve constipation, maintain a healthy pregnancy weight gain, reduce back pain, and may reduce your risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and cesarean birth.2,3

Learn more: 9 Pregnancy Exercises to Help Prepare for Delivery

Physical changes that may impact exercise during pregnancy

During pregnancy, your body goes through many musculo-skeletal changes.11 As your breasts and uterus enlarge, the weight in front of your body pulls the shoulders forward. To adjust for changes in your center of gravity, the lower back curves more deeply inward to keep you balanced.11 Additionally, pregnancy hormones cause your ligaments (the parts of the body that support our joints) to relax and stretch.2,4

These changes can cause strain, injury, and discomfort; however, stretching and strengthening exercises can aid in preventing and managing some of these changes.4

Learn about:

How much Should I Eat while Pregnant?

What Nutrients do I need during Pregnancy?

Exercises to avoid during pregnancy

While there are many types of exercises that are safe during pregnancy, some are not recommended. Try to avoid movements that are too sudden or erratic, too bouncy, or which are high-impact.2 Refrain from exercises that involve lying flat on your back.2

Activities that should be discontinued during pregnancy because they involve excessive speed, impact, balance, or changes in pressure include: downhill skiing, racquet sports, rollerblading, horseback riding, gymnastics, road biking, contact sports, surfing, diving, and scuba diving.2

How to incorporate exercise during pregnancy

Warm up and cool down stretches are helpful

You can help get your body ready for exercise and prevent injury by starting with dynamic stretching.5,12 Dynamic stretching, which is gently repeating a stretch multiple times for short durations, is recommended when your muscles are not yet warmed up as it’s less likely to overextend your muscles and joints and cause injury.16

Deeper stretching, with greater extension and longer duration per stretch, is safer to do after a workout.

With any exercise, and with stretching in particular, it’s important to listen to your body. If you feel any pain, back off a bit until the stretch is comfortable to help prevent injury.

This article, Exercise Warm-ups and Cool Downs, has a comprehensive array of stretches and exercises to help you get your body ready to move. It also provides guidance on cooling down after your workout.

Engage in a variety of exercises that are safe for pregnancy and involve stretching, strengthening, and low-impact aerobics6

  • Prenatal yoga and prenatal Pilates: Prenatal exercise classes offer modified positions for stretching and strengthening to accommodate your growing belly. Prenatal yoga and prenatal Pilates classes are safe and will help you stay flexible and toned throughout your pregnancy.

  • Walking: If you have not been exercising prior to pregnancy, then walking is an easy and effective way to be active, as are lower impact variations of hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Even if you were already exercising regularly or doing other types of exercise, consider setting a goal of walking for at least 30 minutes per day.

  • Stair climbing: Going up and down stairs, whether slowly or quickly and always with a hand on the railing, makes for an excellent workout. You can do it anywhere there are stairs with a railing and safe treads. By going up two stairs at a time (but always coming down one stair at a time), you can vary the exercise.

  • Swimming: Swimming works the whole body without stressing joints and ligaments. As an added bonus, the buoyancy of the water is comforting and relaxing.

  • Stationary cycling: Road biking requires good balance and is not recommended during pregnancy; however, stationary biking is a safe variation and equally beneficial. There are even recumbent bikes that have more comfortable seats in which you recline while cycling.

  • Jogging: If you were a runner prior to pregnancy, then you can continue jogging during pregnancy as long as your healthcare provider gives the OK.

  • Low-impact aerobics: Aerobic activity is generally safe during pregnancy, but stay away from exercise that involves jarring movement or jumping because these movements can cause joint strain and discomfort.

  • Light weight training: Strength training is generally safe if done with the guidance of an expert. Be sure to use slow and controlled movements, do short sets (less than 10 repetitions) and try not to hold your breath while bearing down as this may cause increased pressure on the uterus.

Consider doing exercises that can help promote back health13

  • Isometric exercises: Engage/tighten the pelvic floor, abdominal, lower back, and gluteus muscles periodically while sitting, and always when lifting, to help strengthen your core and prevent lower back injury.

  • Arm and leg extensions: Start in an all-fours hands and knees position, then extend your right arm forward and left leg back as you inhale. Return to starting position as you exhale and repeat with your left arm and right leg. Do 6 sets on each side.

  • Back press: Stand with your back against the wall and feet about one foot away from the wall. Press your lower back into the wall and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times.

  • Pelvic tilts: Practicing pelvic tilts will help stretch the lower back muscles that may have tightened after performing the above strengthening exercises. To do this, stand straight with your back against the wall, in the same position as you began in the back press. Then draw your belly button towards your spine and gently rock your hips towards your face so that your tailbone lifts – you will feel your lower back will press into the wall.

  • Child’s pose: Start in an all-fours hands and knees position with hands under shoulders and knees wider than your hips. Bring your hips back to your heels, arms still extended in front, and hold for 5 seconds. Come back up to your hands and knees. Repeat 5 times.

  • Sitting twist: Sit with legs crossed. Turn to your left, placing your left hand on the floor behind you and your right hand on your left knee as you move into a gentle stretch. Hold for a breath. Do the same on the other side. Repeat the set of twists 5 more times.

When you cool down after exercise, include a recovery period followed by deeper and longer stretching

After more vigorous exercise, walk around until your heart rate comes back to normal, then take some time to stretch.7 Stretching after exercise is the perfect way to take advantage of your warmed-up muscles and increase your flexibility.

Repeat the stretches you did during the warm-up but this time hold the stretches for at least 30 seconds on each side.

Make strengthening your pelvic floor part of your daily exercise routine

Check with your doctor to see if practicing perineal muscle squeezes (Kegels) every day is a good strategy for you.10 If so, try 10 squeezes 3 times per day, half of them at a rhythmic pulse and the other half with a longer squeeze and release.8 In other words, do 5 faster squeezes and 5 slower ones during each session.

Find creative ways to remind yourself to exercise your pelvic floor muscles – perhaps commit to doing your 10 squeezes with each meal or at certain landmarks during your commute to work and back.

One of the great things about Kegels is that you can do them discreetly, including in public or at work, so if it is easier for you to do 10 of them at spontaneous moments then go for it! Doing these exercises in small increments throughout the day may be more effective than just one long session and, for those who find the process overwhelming initially, more doable.

For additional benefit, when you can, perform your pelvic floor exercises in a variety of positions such as hands and knees, sitting in butterfly pose, standing, or lying on your side.

Learn more:  Pelvic Floor Muscles and How to Strengthen Them

Drink plenty of fluids

Providing your body with enough water helps prevent dehydration and the headaches, dizziness, and rapid pulse that go along with it.6 Keep a water bottle with you and drink before, during, and after exercising. If you feel lightheaded or dizzy, then rest and make sure you replenish your fluids. Also, be sure to empty your bladder before you exercise–some women experience urinary incontinence with prenatal exercise.

Read more:

Tips for Staying Hydrated during Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Healthy Snack Ideas during Pregnancy

Make sure you’re breathing at a comfortable rate

When you’re exercising you should be able to talk at a normal conversational pace. If you can’t carry on a conversation, you need to slow down the intensity of your exercise.9 Be cognizant of taking deep breaths with a slower exhale. Rest when and if you need to.

Additionally, avoid holding your breath while contracting your muscles. This is called the Valsalva Maneuver and it can create a lot of pressure on the uterus.17 Be sure to breath out while contracting your muscles and breath in while releasing.

Be aware of warning signs that you need to stop exercising

Stop exercising and call your healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Vaginal bleeding or fluids leaking from the vagina

  • Dizziness or feeling faint

  • Increased shortness of breath or hyperventilation

  • Chest pain or uneven heartbeat

  • Headache

  • Muscle weakness, pain, or swelling

  • Calf pain or swelling

  • Uterine contractions

  • Decreased fetal movement2,6

Pay close attention to heat advisory warnings

Pay attention to the weather forecast during extremely hot and humid weather.6 Consider exercising indoors, preferably in air conditioning, so you can feel good after your workout rather than completely worn out.

Swimming is a great option, and you may be able to find an “aqua-natal” prenatal swim class at your local recreation center.

On your own or in a group, opt for whatever is most engaging for you

There are many ways to engage in effective prenatal exercise, whether in a group class, on your own, inside, or outdoors. Prenatal versions of yoga and Pilates classes modify exercises and positions for pregnant participants. If you enjoy working out in a group setting, these classes may be a great fit.

If you prefer to do yoga or Pilates alone, you might consider taking a private class, renting a DVD, or trying an online class and exercising at home. Check out your local library or “on demand” television for free rentals of these types of videos.

Research consistently shows the additional benefits to mood and mind when we move our bodies out of doors in more natural settings.18 So if you have access to safe outdoor trails, parks, and swimming holes, whether pools, lakes, or the ocean, then consider walking, hiking, swimming, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing (avoiding the slopes!) for a breath of fresh air.

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Dealing with the Physical Discomforts of Pregnancy

How to Manage Heartburn during Pregnancy

Meal Plan: Key Nutrients of Pregnancy

Exercise: Strengthening and Protecting Your Core

Exercise For Non-exercisers at Every Stage