M.Ed., RD, LDN, CLC
Andie is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Lactation Consultant, and Certified Personal Trainer who thinks of nutrition counseling as equal parts science and sensitivity. She specializes in lactation, sports nutrition, exercise fitness, and weight loss programs.
If you have a normal, low-risk pregnancy, you can engage in safe prenatal exercise from conception until delivery. 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.
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In your 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 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 can enhance your mood, increase your energy, build endurance, improve posture, improve sleep quality, promote relaxation, and better prepare you for labor and birth. It can also help you maintain a healthy pregnancy weight gain.
Physical changes in the body to keep in mind when exercising
During pregnancy, your body goes through many musculo-skeletal changes. 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. Pregnancy hormones cause the joints to loosen up due to the stretching of ligaments. These changes can cause strain, injury, and discomfort; however, stretching and strengthening exercises can aid in preventing and managing some of these changes.
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. Dynamic stretching, which is 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. 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. Don’t take a “one size fits all” approach. Everyone has a different level of flexibility to start with and pushing yourself into a deeper stretch before you’re ready can lead to injuries that will sideline your efforts to exercise altogether.
Exercises to avoid during pregnancy
While there are many types of exercises that are safe during pregnancy, some are not recommended. Avoid jerky, high-impact exercise, deep knee bends, and double leg lifts. After your first trimester, refrain from exercises that involve lying flat on your back. 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.
Stop exercising and call your healthcare provider if you have any of these symptoms:
Engage in a variety of exercises that are safe for pregnancy and involve stretching, strengthening, and low-impact aerobics
Consider doing exercises that can help promote back health
Warm-up before exercise by stretching
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. 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
Practice 30 perineal muscle squeezes (Kegels) per day. Try 10 squeezes 3 times per day, half of them at a rhythmic pulse and the other half with a longer squeeze and release. In other words, do 5 faster squeezes and 5 slower ones during each session. See Everything I need to know about pelvic floor exercises for more details.
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.
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. 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.
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. Rapid, short, and shallow breaths, or hyperventilation, can cause lightheadedness and even fainting. Be cognizant of taking deep breaths with a slower exhale. Rest when and if you need to.
Be aware of warning signs that you need to stop exercising
Stop exercising and call your healthcare provider if you do find that exercise triggers hyperventilation or if you experience any of the following symptoms: chest pain, uneven heartbeat, pain or swelling, headache, uterine contractions that continue after rest, vaginal fluid leakage, vaginal spotting or bleeding, or decreased fetal movement.
Heed heat advisory warnings
Pay attention to the weather forecast during extremely hot and humid weather. 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 “aquanatal” 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, or renting a DVD or trying an online class and exercising at home. Check out your local library or “on demand” cable 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. 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 for a breath of fresh air.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Your Pregnancy & Birth 4th edition, 2005.
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