Years ago, expectant moms were encouraged to rest—a lot. Today, we know that healthy moms can and should exercise throughout pregnancy.
"No matter the type of birth you have—hospital or home birth, epidural or no anesthesia, vaginal or c-section—your muscles, joints and tissues will be challenged by the rapid changes that occur throughout the childbearing year," says Jennifer Tucker, a Los Angeles-based certified pre/post natal exercise specialist and owner of Fit for Expecting. She adds, "Physical and emotional preparation for these changes is essential. Incorporating a regular, safe and comprehensive exercise program into your life is a must."
"Moderate intensity exercise in a healthy pregnancy is so important for both the well being of the mother and the growing baby," says Angie Johnson, a physical therapist from Portland, Oregon, and owner of Leap4Women, which offers prenatal exercise classes.
Tucker agrees. "Regular exercise during pregnancy is associated with a reduced risk of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and preterm birth." She continues, "Women experience reduced pregnancy-related discomforts, such as back pain and water retention, increased energy, stamina and muscle control for an easier pregnancy and a faster and less painful delivery."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that in the absence of medical or obstetric complications, pregnant women should engage in 30 or more minutes of moderate exercise a day, on most, if not all, days of the week. It's important to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, but most women can exercise safely during pregnancy. When choosing an exercise program, consider your interests and personal situation. "There isn't a one-size-fits-all exercise program," says Tucker. "Every woman is unique—her body, mental state, career, family, prior exercise experience, physical/medical limitations, likes/dislikes—and in order to be effective and sustainable, each woman's exercise program should be tailored specifically for her."
Tucker advises, "Your exercise program should incorporate aerobic exercise, strengthening, stretching and relaxation/breathing." She adds, "Each of these elements does something different for your body and mind, and they work together to keep you healthy and strong. In the postpartum period, take the time to strengthen your core (pelvic floor, abs, back) before starting a more vigorous exercise program."
To be more specific, Johnson suggests the following exercises, "Vigorous walking, especially finding some hills to conquer, biking, elliptical, treadmill, swimming. Any activity that can raise the heart rate to about 70 percent heart rate max (around 130 to 140 beats per minute) and keep it raised for 30 minutes should be encouraged."
Start slowly, especially if you haven't been exercising, and don't exercise to the point of exhaustion. Take frequent breaks and consult your doctor when in doubt.
You probably know that skiing, water skiing and snowboarding are off the table during pregnancy. Horseback riding also carries risks. Johnson notes a few other sports to avoid. "Obviously, activities that could cause trauma to the baby, like contact sports, should be discouraged, or any sport that promotes a large uneven weight bearing though one leg, like kick boxing or deep lunges, should not be performed in pregnancy." Avoid hiking or walking on uneven terrain late in pregnancy, when your balance is off, and don't do exercises that require you to lie flat on your back, according to the American Pregnancy Association.
"Finally, if something doesn't feel good, stop," says Johnson. "Always, always, listen to your body. Pregnancy is not the time to ignore pain or discomfort when exercising." Additionally, consult your doctor immediately if you experience preterm labor, bleeding, vaginal leaking or decreased fetal movement.
Tips for Success
Finding the motivation to exercise during pregnancy can be hard. Early on, you may be dealing with fatigue and nausea. Late in pregnancy, your growing tummy can make exercise awkward. But keep at it, says Tucker. Even 10 minutes can make a big difference, and the benefits are worth the extra trouble.
Women who exercise during and after pregnancy, says Tucker, "have a lower incidence of postpartum depression, improved abdominal muscle tone and improved ability to lose both weight and fat gained during pregnancy." She adds, "Babies of mothers who exercise regularly during pregnancy are more likely to be healthy and calm with improved neurological development."
To maximize comfort, wear a supportive bra and shoes. Drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise. Eat a healthy snack an hour or two before you exercise and adjust your exercise throughout pregnancy. Maybe you ran five miles every day before you were pregnant, but if running doesn't feel good, switch to a brisk walk instead.