Most of us already know that exercising regularly works wonders for the mind and body. From boosting energy and busting stress to improving cardiovascular health and strengthening muscles and bones, the benefits are aplenty.
What’s more, research shows that regular physical activity can also improve maternal and fetal health. It helps prepare your body for labor and childbirth, makes postpartum recovery smoother and boosts cognitive development of the baby, among other things. But before you unroll your yoga mat, here’s what the experts want you to know:
First things first, how safe is it to exercise during pregnancy?
“Prenatal exercise is generally safe, as long as you’re careful not to overdo it and adjust your workouts as necessary,” says Dr. Larisa Corda, fertility specialist and member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
“Physical activity does not increase your risk of miscarriage, low birth weight or early delivery,” states the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). However, before you begin, it’s crucial to discuss exercise with your obstetrician or other members of your health care team during your early prenatal visits, it adds.
For anyone who isn’t used to regular exercise, “never start a new strenuous activity that you aren’t used to,” warns Dr. Corda. “And always consult with your doctor to help advise you on what is and isn’t suitable for you personally, depending on your medical history and how well your pregnancy is progressing,” she advises.
Despite its varied health benefits, prenatal exercise isn’t recommended for everyone. For instance, “if you suffer from a medical condition, such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes, working out may not be advisable,” says Dr. Corda. Women who have severe anemia or lung disease should also avoid regular physical activity, suggests ACOG.
In addition, “if you have developed a pregnancy-related complication (such as bleeding), have a history of preterm birth or have been told that you have a weak cervix or a low-lying placenta, doing exercise may not be a good idea,” tells Dr. Corda. But if you do want to have some sort of fitness regimen, “you absolutely need to seek the advice of an obstetrician beforehand,” she says. They can help you figure out what kind of workouts you can safely do and which ones you should avoid.
The potential benefits of prenatal exercise
Regular physical activity during pregnancy is beneficial for you and your baby in more than one way.
In expecting moms, “prenatal exercise helps reduce the risk of pregnancy-related complications, such as gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and preeclampsia,” tells Dr. Corda. And it improves the odds of successful labor and helps with postpartum recovery.
Moreover, “working out can help improve your posture, strengthen your heart and blood vessels and decrease some common discomforts such as backaches, constipation and fatigue,” notes the obstetrician. Besides boosting your overall fitness, “it also helps you lose baby weight effectively,” she adds.
For the baby, the benefits include better cognitive development, improved heart health and enhanced motor skills. Also, it increases the chance for the baby of having a healthy weight at birth—which is linked to a lower risk of obesity in later life.
Workouts that are safe to do during pregnancy
“Exercises like swimming, brisk walking, low-impact yoga, indoor cycling, low-impact aerobics as well as pilates (taught by a certified instructor) are considered safe to do during pregnancy,” tells Dr. Corda. “They have little risk of injury, benefit your entire body and can be continued until birth,” she explains.
Then there are other forms of physical activity, such as ballet and running, which can be done in moderation. “But only if you are used to doing these already,” says the fertility expert. And even then, “the routine will need to be adjusted to suit your changing body and its demands,” she adds.
To reap the full benefits of exercising, It’s best to follow a fitness routine that includes a combination of aerobic (cardio) as well as anaerobic (resistance) exercises, says Dr. Corda.
If you’re a beginner, here are a few simple at-home exercises you can safely do throughout your pregnancy, according to a personal trainer:
#1 Diaphragmatic breathing: “Being able to access your deep core muscles is crucial during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum recovery,” says Annette Lang, an NYC-based certified personal trainer. “It helps minimize the strain against the abdominal wall and diastasis recti, soothes backache and helps push the baby out with less stress and strain,” she adds.
How to do it:
- Lie on the floor and bend your knees. Keep one hand on your belly and the other hand on your upper chest.
- Now slowly inhale through your nose until you feel your belly expand a little.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth until you feel your belly slightly pulling in.
- Try to minimize chest movement and focus on deep breathing. You can practice it in a seated position too.
#2 Basic Kegel: The added weight of the baby together with the loosening of your pelvic floor can potentially contribute to urinary incontinence (loss of bladder control). “Learning how to engage (or contract) and relax your pelvic floor and strengthening the muscles around the hips is important for treating pregnancy-induced incontinence,” says Lang.
How to do it:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your back upright.
- Next, tighten your pelvic floor muscles for five seconds (pretend you’re trying to hold a fart).
- Now let the muscles relax for five seconds. This action engages or contracts your pelvic floor one time.
- Do two sets of 15 to 20 reps every day. Make sure your bladder is empty before you start this exercise.
#3 The Elevator Kegel: “This simple exercise combines diaphragmatic breathing with pelvic floor engagement,” explains the fitness expert.
How to do it:
- Sit in a comfortable position and keep your back straight.
- Inhale slowly. As you breathe in, gently squeeze and lift your pelvic floor muscles and then stop for a bit (as if you are trying to pull a little elevator up inside of you and it has stopped on the first floor). You should feel your core muscles engaging too.
- Now start squeezing again, all the way up, as much as you can without straining.
- Slowly exhale as you release the elevator and totally relax your pelvic floor. Do one set of 10 reps every day.
Before you begin your workout routine, it’s advisable to start by warming up and stretching for at least five minutes, suggests Dr. Corda. “And make sure you gradually wind down your workout routine with slower exercises to get your heart rate down, followed by gentle stretching,” she says.
Also, once your second trimester begins, gradually reduce the number of sets and reps and switch to lighter exercises to minimize stress on the pelvic floor and abdominal wall, says Lang. For instance, use an elliptical trainer instead of jumping rope or swap jump squats with stationary squats. Similarly, if you used to do three sets of a certain exercise, lower it to one or two.
Workouts you should totally avoid
There are certain physical activities that should generally be avoided when you’re pregnant as they aren’t considered safe for you or your baby. “This includes high-impact activities that can result in a direct hit to your tummy (like martial arts), workouts that are too strenuous, contact sport (such as boxing and rugby) and exercises which require extensive jumping or involve a high risk of slipping or falling (eg: rock climbing),” says Dr Corda. “Exercising in hot, humid conditions should also be avoided,” she adds.
How often should you be exercising?
“Both the ACOG and RCOG (Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecology) recommend 150 minutes of exercise spread out over a week, which is about 20-30 minutes of exercise a day,” notes Dr. Corda.
If you’re new to exercise, start out slowly and gradually increase the duration of your workout routine. “Begin with as little as five minutes a day. Add five minutes each week until you can stay active for 30 minutes a day,” suggests ACOG.
And if you were very active before pregnancy, “you can keep doing the same workouts with your obstetrician’s approval. However, if you start to lose weight, you may need to increase the number of calories that you eat,” it adds.
Key safety tips to keep in mind
“Bear in mind that physical changes during pregnancy create extra demands on the body,” says Dr. Corda. Your changing shape will also mean some exercises become more difficult to do.
Also, “the production of relaxin (one of the hormones produced during pregnancy) causes the ligaments supporting your joints to stretch, increasing the risk of injury. Moreover, the extra weight changes your center of gravity and places more strain on your back and pelvis, making it easier to lose balance,” tells Dr. Corda. This is why you shouldn’t try to exercise at your former level when you’re pregnant. Instead, seek the advice of a medical specialist or someone experienced in doing pregnancy-related exercises—to adjust your workout regimen to suit your changing body and its needs.
Here are a few more important tips on how to stay safe when working out:
- Get clearance. Don’t start or continue doing any exercise program before checking with your obstetrician first, says Lang.
- Wear the right gear. “Always wear loose, comfortable clothes and a good support bra,” says Dr. Corda. “And wear shoes that are designed for the type of exercise you’re going to do, to help keep you stable,” she adds.
- Eat right. Eat well-balanced meals. And finish eating at least one hour before exercising. Also, stay hydrated before, during and after your workout, suggests Dr. Corda.
- Get up slowly. To avoid lightheadedness, avoid getting up too quickly after a floor exercise.”When getting up off the floor, roll to the side and get up on all fours. Now put one foot forward so you are half kneeling and then stand up,” says Lang.
- Workout on a flat surface. “Exercise on a flat, level surface to maintain balance and prevent injuries, suggests Dr. Corda.
- Avoid standing still or lying flat on your back as much as possible. “When you lie on your back, your uterus presses on a large vein that returns blood to the heart,” says ACOG. “Standing motionless can cause blood to pool in your legs and feet. These positions may cause your blood pressure to decrease for a short time,” it points out.
- Don’t push yourself too hard. “Never exercise to the point of exhaustion. If you cannot talk normally while exercising, you are probably over-exerting yourself and should slow down,” says Dr. Corda.
Lastly, if you feel any discomfort while exercising (like dizziness, nausea, irregular heartbeat or cramps), stop immediately and make an appointment with your doctor at the earliest opportunity.