Pregnancy may seem like a good opportunity to stop exercising and put your feet up but before you settle on the sofa with another slice of cake, but staying active during pregnancy will boost not only your own health, but also that of your unborn baby.
How much should I do?
For the regular exerciser, it is strongly recommended that you switch to a maintenance programme to ensure the risks don’t outweigh the benefits. Contact sports should be avoided after the first three months, while horse riding, skating, skiing, and cycling are not recommended beyond this point due to the risk of falling. If possible, get some advice from an antenatal exercise specialist who can tailor your programme to your specific needs.
If you don’t normally exercise regularly, this is a good time to start. The Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists recommends beginning with 15 minutes of continuous exercise three times a week, increasing gradually to 30 minute sessions, from four times a week to daily. The intensity should be sufficient to induce an increase in your heart and breathing rate but you should still be able to maintain a conversation.
Where the heart is
Cardiovascular exercise, such as walking or swimming, will benefit both you and your baby as it improves your efficiency in transporting and utilising oxygen, reducing the likelihood of developing circulatory problems such as cramps or varicose veins and improving blood flow to the placenta. This form of exercise also reduces the risk of gestational diabetes and high blood pressure.
Cardiovascular exercise increases your energy levels, can improve your sleep patterns and, importantly for many women, can control additional weight gain.
It doesn’t matter whether you get off the bus one stop earlier, park the car further away, or take the stairs rather than the lift – just walk! It’s a great way to improve aerobic fitness and help tone your legs.
Gayle, mum to 17-month old David, walked four miles every day during her pregnancy. ‘I’d put on my hiking boots and chill out with some music. It was great to be out in the fresh air and I’d feel cranky if I had to miss a session!’
Your ankles are more vulnerable to twisting during pregnancy so make sure you have the correct footwear for the terrain you’re walking on. Flat shoes for work will help you incorporate walking into your daily routine. Keep at one with nature through a pair of walking boots or waterproof trainers, as wellies do not provide sufficient ankle support for muddy country rambles.
A good heel/toe action is essential to absorb shock through the foot, and try to keep the legs aligned in front rather than turning out. Walk tall with shoulders down and head up and don’t forget to use your abdominal muscles to draw your baby in.
A good supportive bra is important to reduce breast movement, particularly if you’re walking briskly. As your pregnancy progresses, you will naturally reduce the pace to maintain comfort.
Keep on running?
It’s not a good idea to continue running beyond around 20 weeks due to increased impact on the joints, breasts and pelvic floor during pregnancy, as well as increased movement of the abdomen.
In the swim!
Exercising in water supports your bump and is great for your circulation as the pressure of the water on your blood vessels stimulates blood flow and reduces any swelling. It’s also an excellent way to maintain your abdominal tone. Take care not to overwork these muscles with strong rotational movements, particularly in deeper water.
Gentle swimming can be particularly relaxing but if you are experiencing any pelvic girdle pain you should avoid breaststroke leg action. Avoid butterfly stroke as this encourages large spinal movements. Invest in a pair of goggles so you can swim with your head down – swimming with your head lifted out of the water will cause your hips to drop and accentuate the increased curve in the lumbar spine.
You don’t have to be a swimmer to enjoy the benefits of H2O – contact your local pool to find out about water exercise classes for pregnant women.
‘Weighting’ for baby
As pregnancy progresses, your body undergoes its own weight training programme and quickly adapts to the increasing demands of your changing shape. Your legs will naturally strengthen with the increased weight and your spinal muscles will tighten to keep your body upright.
Your arms, however, may not be similarly challenged, especially if your partner insists you don’t do any lifting. Yet as soon as your baby arrives, you will be required to lift, carry and hold her for many hours and even a little seven pound baby will start to feel heavy! So do lift the lighter shopping bags and politely decline the offer of a hand up from the sofa so that your arms get some work, but ensure you do so with the abdominal muscles held in.
The abdominal muscles undergo an enormous amount of stretching during pregnancy, weakening your spinal support mechanism and causing low back pain. It is vital that these muscles are used when bending, lifting and carrying; they should also be activated regularly throughout the day to help maintain a degree of abdominal tone. This will also help you regain a flat tummy postnatally. Sit ups should not be performed after the first three months as this will stress the muscles further and delay postnatal repair.
You’d be right to think your pelvic floor is also undergoing its own weight training programme but unfortunately the effects of the hormone relaxing encourage these muscles to relax in preparation for delivery. This means it is essential to exercise the pelvic floor muscles regularly.
Gently does it
Pregnancy is the perfect time to get in touch with your body and there’s no better way to do so than with a mind/body workout such as Pilates or yoga. Check the instructor is qualified to teach pregnant women or, better still, attend a pregnancy-specific class.
Such classes aim to improve posture through stretching and strengthening exercises which should help to reduce pregnancy aches and pains. However, do be careful not to overstretch.
Zoe, 23 weeks pregnant with her second baby, feels so much stronger this time from regular exercise sessions. ‘Pilates is helping me to correct and re-balance my body and my joints feel much more stable this time.
I also seem to have more energy to cope with my toddler and my work’ Pilates is particularly good for strengthening the deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. Yoga and meditation may help you to relax – deep breathing and relaxation techniques are essential tools to help you de-stress and will be invaluable during labour.
Vikki, mum to three year old Elisabeth, attended pregnancy-specific Pilates and fitness classes and feels that being in tune with her body empowered her to cope with labour: ‘It gave me the confidence to delay intervention, knowing my body wasn’t quite ready, and I was able to deliver naturally just two hours later’.
How do I exercise my pelvic floor?
Give our page on exercising your pelvic floor a read!
Activate your abdominals
Together with your pelvic floor exercise this is one of the most important exercises you can do during pregnancy. And just like the pelvic floor exercise, this exercise can be done in any position – sitting, standing or kneeling on hands/knees.
- Draw your tummy in towards your spine
- Hold for a few seconds, continuing to breathe
- Release gently
- Repeat as frequently as possible throughout the day
- Incorporate this when you bend or lift to keep your back supported
This should be a soft sinking feeling, rather than a strong bracing action and the breath should not be held.
- Check with your doctor before you start exercising
- Tell your instructor you’re pregnant if attending a class
- Eat three-four hours before exercise and immediately after
- Try to maintain good posture
- Wear layered clothing to aid heat loss, a supportive bra and appropriate footwear
- Drink plenty of water – approximately two and a half litres per day (this is particularly important in the first three months)
- Listen to your body and don’t push yourself
- Stop immediately if you begin to feel uncomfortable
- To exhaustion
- When it’s very hot or you’re feeling unwell
- On your back after 16 weeks
- If you have deep pelvic pain or spotting of blood
- If you’re getting lots of Braxton Hicks contractions
Page lasted updated 2010.