Exercising When You’re Expecting

Learn the benefits of exercise for an expecting woman, what to avoid, and guidelines for safe exercising in pregnancy.

More and more women are continuing their exercise programs when pregnant. Charlotte Case, 34, gave birth to her daughter, India, two weeks ago and continued her workout until shortly before the birth. “I was swimming, doing body conditioning, and walking all through my pregnancy,” she says. Case only stopped her daily swim two days before her daughter was born, and she continued her body conditioning classes until eight weeks before delivery. “I was quite careful during the first three months and would say that the swimming definitely helped keep me fit and supple,” she says.

In her book Healthy Pregnancy, Dr. Miriam Stoppard states that exercising while pregnant has several benefits, including reducing weight gain during pregnancy and making it easier to lose weight after the birth. Plus exercise improves a woman’s emotional and physical well-being by releasing endorphins and increasing energy levels. Exercise also prepares women for the work of childbirth.

Marcelle Falconer, 27, also exercised throughout her pregnancy—specifically walking and using weights—and has continued since the birth of her daughter 11 months ago. She is now back to her full program, which includes circuit, weights, cycling, and cross training. She adds that while she was pregnant, exercising helped keep her energy levels up, although she was careful not to overdo it.

According to American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) guidelines, pregnant women are encouraged to engage in 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day on most, if not all, days of the week.

Dr. Maggie Blott, a consultant obstetrician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, England, recommends that women continue some form of exercise throughout pregnancy. She says that most of her patients do so and that “any exercise is good as long as it is comfortable and safe.”

What to Try

Golf, bicycling (especially on a stationary bicycle where there is less chance of falling), dance, and stretching are commonly recommended activities for expectant moms because they help maintain muscle tone and flexibility. But the real winners for effective, beneficial, and safe exercise while pregnant are walking, swimming, and yoga or Pilates.

Walking is one of the best cardiovascular exercises for pregnant women as it helps maintain good digestion and circulation. Marcelle Falconer found walking was excellent exercise when she was suffering from morning sickness. “Because I only had mild morning sickness, I was able to carry on exercising and actually found that walking seemed to take my mind off how I was feeling,” she says. “It definitely helped, and I was very careful not to get too hot or over-exert myself at any stage.”

Dr. Blott agrees that walking is good exercise for pregnant women because “it is comfortable, easy, and very safe.”

Swimming tones most muscles and improves stamina. Hormonal changes in the body lead to loose ligaments, especially in the hips and pelvis. But due to the buoyancy of water, it is difficult to strain muscles and joints while swimming—making a couple laps in the pool a great way for moms-to-be to work out.

Michele Washington, an Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) accredited personal trainer and Pilates instructor at the LA Fitness gym, often teaches water exercise courses. “[Swimming] is a very comfortable exercise during pregnancy,” she says. “Participants use a water noodle, also known as a woggle, to ease back strain.” Dr. Blott agrees that swimming is a “particularly good exercise, again because it is comfortable and also because it works a lot of different muscle groups.”

In her book Natural Remedies for Morning Sickness and Other Pregnancy Problems, Denise Tiran, a lecturer in complementary therapy and midwifery at the University of Greenwich, England, says, “Research appears to indicate that water exercises during pregnancy increase the flow of blood to the uterus and also help reduce fluid retention.” She adds that the temperature of the pool should be warm but not too hot, and that a woman’s own temperature should not exceed 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Any time a pregnant woman feels overheated, she should get out of the pool immediately.

Yoga and Pilates increase suppleness and reduce tension. They also teach women to control breathing and can aid concentration during labor. Many yoga and Pilates teachers offer special pregnancy classes. If you are attending a regular class, it is important to tell your instructor that you are pregnant and to avoid lying flat on your back, as that decreases the blood flow to your uterus.

What to Avoid

According to Dr. Stoppard, the following exercises should be avoided during pregnancy:

  • Jogging is especially hard on the breasts and jarring for the back, spine, pelvis, hips, and knees. Washington agrees: “Any type of impact exercise will be uncomfortable during pregnancy and will put strain on the lumbar spine, and may even cause contractions if there is a lot of impact or bouncing.”
  • Skiing and horseback riding should also be avoided in the second and third trimesters because balance may be affected as the center of gravity shifts. Plus, falling is a possibility and a danger for both you and your unborn baby.

Who Shouldn’t Exercise

Dr. Judith Brown, RD, MPH, PhD, recommends that women with the following complications avoid exercise:

Exercise Safety

Listen to your body. If you experience any of these symptoms, stop exercising immediately and consult your physician:

  • dizziness
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • numbness
  • back pain

Before kicking off any exercise program, follow the following important tips:

  • Wear comfortable and lightweight clothing that allows your skin to breathe. Invest in a good support bra and comfortable non-slip shoes.
  • Drink lots of fluids. Pregnant women are more likely to suffer from dehydration. A good indication of whether you are dehydrated is to check your urine; if it is clear, your fluid levels are fine.
  • Don’t overdo it! Pregnancy is not the time to begin a strenuous fitness program. It is also advisable to check with your doctor before exercising during pregnancy. If you are used to exercising, take it slowly and you will probably be able to maintain your routine with only a few adjustments.Dr. Stoppard says it is unadvisable to reach the stage of breathlessness while exercising during pregnancy. If you can’t carry on a conversation during your workout, you need to slow down and reduce your intensity.

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