There seems to be conflicting advice out there as to how much it is safe to exercise in pregnancy. It’s no wonder many mums to be are confused and may err on the side of caution. Let’s take a look at this area in more detail.
Congratulations – you’re expecting a baby!
There is so much to take in at first, so many vitamins to take, foods to avoid, all sorts of do’s and dont’s that doctors, midwives and other health professionals want to make you aware of. Then you start reading books and looking online and you become aware of so many things that could go wrong. Is it any wonder that so many pregnant women feel that the best way to deal with pregnancy risk is to take lots of rest, sit down and move as little as possible?
Even people who up until they become pregnant have always been fit, healthy and exercised regularly, start to wonder what if any of their favourite activities they will be able to continue with. And anyone who starts off unfit and overweight knows that this probably isn’t the time to kick start a weight loss or fitness routine
Is it Safe to Exercise whilst Pregnant?
In the past, due to a lack of information and knowledge, and a large dollop of fear and worry, women have been told to take it easy during pregnancy. They weren’t supposed to exercise or do anything considered remotely strenuous, the fear being that they or the baby could be harmed. We didn’t really have a specific idea how this could happen, but for many women, their own fears or the worries of others could ultimately convince them that they were in a ‘condition’ that meant they should be treated very delicately, or as if they were ill.
Thankfully, we now know that exercising during a normal, low-risk pregnancy is one of the best things we can do for the long-term health and fitness of both mother and baby. There are so many ways in which staying active can help –be it with the pregnancy itself, labour and delivery, or into the post-natal period. And whilst pregnancy isn’t a time for increasing fitness, it is a great time to maintain fitness levels.
Early studies and current research have shown us that during pregnancy, the way that the body adapts to exercise is actually protective towards the foetus. In fact, in most cases, studies have demonstrated that exercise in pregnancy is safe for both mother and baby. Of course there are certain exceptions, and if your health professionals have told you specifically that something about your pregnancy means that exercise is contra-indicated, then please follow their advice.
The Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (RCOG) have produced a leaflet about the benefits of recreational exercise during pregnancy. Recreational exercise refers here to any planned regular exercise that a woman takes during her pregnancy, which involves energetic (aerobic) exercise (such as swimming or running) and/or strength conditioning exercise. The aim of recreational exercise during pregnancy is for a woman to stay fit rather than to reach peak fitness.
The RCOG guidance states that “all women should be encouraged to participate in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle during their pregnancy” and that “adverse pregnancy or neonatal outcomes are not increased for exercising women.” This means that the medical professionals support exercise during pregnancy and believe it to be safe.
Benefits of Exercise in Pregnancy
So what are the benefits? After all, pregnancy can be very tiring, so if you are going to work out, you want to know that all the effort is worth it! In fact there are some well documented benefits for both the baby and for the mother
- For the baby, research suggests that in the short term exercise can lead to favourable heart rates, and in the longer term the baby is better able to tolerate extended pregnancy (going over the due date) and labour itself.
- For the mother there are many reasons to stay active. In fact whilst pregnancy is certainly not the time for a sedentary woman to start vigorous exercise, it can be a good time to start a gentle programme of exercise to improve the health of both the mother and the baby.
One of the key benefits is keeping a healthy weight during pregnancy, which in turn can lead to better self-image, improved body confidence, and of course less to lose after the baby is born. In addition, another reason to keep exercising is that it can lead to shorter, easier labours that are less painful.
For most women, these two reasons alone are enough to get them motivated and raring to go, but if you need more convincing, think about the fact that exercising while pregnant can help to reduce gastrointestinal and muscular discomfort and pain, it can improve circulation and reduce swelling (think less puffy ankles) and it is a major contributor to the reduction of lower back pain. Finally, research tells us that women who are the most physically active in the prenatal period have the lowest incidence of gestational diabetes.
How much should I exercise?
Ok, so what type of exercise is good and how much? According to the RCOG guidelines, pregnant women should take some form of both aerobic and strength training. This doesn’t mean hours on the treadmill and lifting heavy weights in the gym, but rather moderate cardiovascular work, up to 30 minutes four to six times a week, and some work with light resistance. Yoga (with modifications) is very popular in pregnancy, as are walking and swimming; all enjoyable, effective and safe, but not the only options available to pregnant women, many of whom do still use the gym or take more traditional exercise. See what’s going on in your area – use Google and other search engines, web sites such as netmums.com or ask at your antenatal group.
It is very important to remember that the body goes through many physiological changes and which stage of pregnancy a woman is at will to a large extent dictate what she should and shouldn’t include. In addition, a woman’s level of activity and fitness prior to pregnancy will also have a large bearing on what she can and can’t do. Always speak to your GP or midwife before starting or continuing any type of exercise in pregnancy and seek out professional help if you are unsure of what to do. Make sure that any instructor you work with knows that you are pregnant so they can advise you of any recommended modifications for the exercise you are doing
Once you have been given the go ahead however, exercising whist pregnant can be one of the best things you can do for yourself and your baby. If you have exercised regularly before you were pregnant you may be able to continue much of what you did before for a substantial amount of the pregnancy – again you should seek specific advice depending on the sport that you prefer. It’s not even unheard of for pregnant women to run marathons.
Whatever exercise you do there are some guidelines that you should definitely be aware of. Stay cool, well hydrated, wear appropriate clothing (especially a really good sports bra!) and never exercise when you are tired or feeling unwell. Exercise can support your body, your baby and your state of mind throughout pregnancy – and its benefits can last well beyond birth. Why not try it for yourself?
I run personal training sessions for pregnant women and also postnatal fitness sessions (babies welcome). So if you live near Twickenham and you would like some advice on what you should do in your pregnancy, then please get in touch.
Rachel Law is a personal fitness trainer based in New Malden, Surrey. Qualifications: ActivIQ Level 3 Personal Training; Burrell Education Pregnancy Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education Advanced Pregnancy Wellness Practitioner; Burrell Education Advanced Post Natal Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education 3rd Age Women Optimal Health and Nutrition; Burrell Education Peri Natal Athlete; Burrell Education Pelvic Flow and Freedom; Olympic Weight Lifting; Premier Global Kettlebells; FIE Level Assessment and Mentoring