pregnancy exercise
 

 

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Exercise during pregnancy: What to know

Expecting a baby doesn’t mean you must spend nine months on the sofa with your favourite biscuits, unfortunately. While a few biscuits won’t hurt, moving is actually great for you and your baby.

You definitely don’t need to avoid exercise for nine months, unless you have specific medical advice telling you not to do any (NICE, 2017). A few health conditions, mentioned below, do mean you should speak with your GP or midwife first.

For many people, a certain level of activity can improve you and your baby’s health while you’re pregnant (RCOG, 2006). It can also mean that you have a shorter labour with fewer complications (RCOG, 2006; OTIS, 2010; May, 2012; NHS Choices, 2017).

It might seem surprising but if you don’t normally exercise much, now is actually a great time to start (NICE, 2017).

Regular exercise can do the following:

  • Help to reduce high blood pressure.
  • Help to reduce the risk of diabetes (Harding, 2017; Department of Health, 2017). For women who have gestational diabetes, exercise may help to control it (Nascimento et al, 2012).
  • Help you to adapt to your changing body shape and maintain a healthy weight during and after pregnancy.
  • Help to reduce the likelihood of varicose veins, swelling in ankles, feet and hands and back pain (Harding, 2017).
  • Improve your fitness levels (Kramer and McDonald, 2006).
  • Improve mood, and reduce depression and anxiety (RCOG, 2006; Department of Health, 2017; Harding, 2017).
  • Improve sleep (Nascimento, 2012; NHS Choices, 2017).
  • Lower the risk of pre-eclampsia, very low birth weight and caesarean birth (Dignon, 2013).
  • Improve your body’s ability to cope by shortening the length of labour and improving the likelihood of a straightforward labour and recovery after the birth (RCOG 2006; OTIS, 2010; May, 2012; NHS Choices, 2017).

Exercise is safe for most women but speak to your GP or midwife before exercising during pregnancy if you have any of the following:

  • Known heart problems or lung disease.
  • Known weakness of the cervix or if you’ve had a cervical stitch.
  • A twin or multiple pregnancy.
  • History of premature labour or any signs of premature labour in your pregnancy.
  • Premature waters breaking.
  • Vaginal bleeding that continues throughout your pregnancy.
  • Placenta praevia, which is where the placenta is close to the cervix.
  • Pre-eclampsia.
  • Poorly controlled diabetes, seizures or thyroid disease during pregnancy.
  • Anaemia during pregnancy.
  • Bone or joint problems that affect mobility.
  • An eating disorder
  • A body mass index higher than 40 or you are very inactive
  • A smoking habit where you smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day.

(Harding, 2017)

Signs you need to stop exercising immediately are listed in our Pregnancy workouts: Key questions answered [LINK to new piece] article.

Pregnancy exercise ideas

Walking

The bonus of heading through a park or woodland is that connecting with nature can reduce stress levels (Natural England, 2016). You might particularly appreciate this relaxation during pregnancy.

Yoga or pilates

This is a brilliant way to check in with your changing body, and to ease any stress (Cameron, 2014). Pilates can help strengthen the key muscles around the pelvis and spine too (Balogh, 2005).

Check that the instructor is qualified to teach pregnant women or better still, attend a pregnancy-specific class. You could try our Relax, Stretch and Breathe classes or an NCT Yoga For Pregnancy class. If you prefer a gentler mind and body exercise, you might enjoy yoga breathing and relaxation or hypnobirthing exercises.

If you do yoga or pilates at home, make sure the exercises you do are safe for pregnancy. Avoid:

  • lying on your back after 16 weeks
  • exercises that include holding your breath or taking short forceful breaths
  • stretches that put you under strain
  • lying upside down or on your abdomen
  • back bends or strong twists.

(Cameron, 2014)

Aquanatal classes and swimming

Aquanatal classes are aerobic exercise classes that you do in water. It’s another great exercise during pregnancy as it can improve your cardiovascular fitness and muscle tone, and help you relax (ACPWH, 2010). The beauty of exercising in the water is that it’ll support your bump, and you’ll have less muscle soreness afterwards and less risk of injury (NHS Choices, 2017).  

Swimming

A miracle all-rounder. It’s is one of the safest exercises you can do during pregnancy. Benefits include easing swelling, feeling of weightlessness and relief from sciatic pain as it encourages circulation.

Swimming can also ease leg and foot swelling, relieve stress and help your baby into a good position for birth (Swim England, 2015). Just avoid backstroke late on in your pregnancy as it can press on the main blood vessels in the abdomen (Swim England, 2015).

Weight lifting

Again, don’t start weight lifting if you haven’t done it before but if you were a regular weight lifter pre-pregnancy, feel free to continue. Weight training can actually prepare you for the physical demands of labour (Evenson, 2004; O'Connor, 2011; Nascimento et al, 2012).

A few things to watch out for are that you might have to use lighter weights than before (Van Hook 1993; ACPWH 2010). You must also avoid certain positions, like those where you forcefully push or lift heavy weights while holding your breath as they can affect blood pressure (Nascimento et al, 2012). If you do classes, let your instructor know you are pregnant.

Housework

Sorry not to get you out of that one.

Dancing, working out at the gym, cycling or running

If you’re used to cardiovascular exercise, it can be great to continue it during pregnancy. Continuing to run during pregnancy is fine. Evidence suggests it does not affect gestational age or birth weight centile (Kurht et al, 2018).

Just don’t start running when pregnant if you didn’t run before – try walking or swimming. Running can affect your knees and pelvic floor even if you’re not pregnant (Davies, 2013) but pregnancy hormone relaxin makes you more injury prone than before.

Aerobic classes

Again, if you did aerobics before, you can carry on. Do make sure you tell the teacher so they can amend movements if needed.

Pregnancy exercise to avoid

While exercise during pregnancy is a great habit, some sports aren’t advisable while you have a baby on board. If you’re in any doubt, speak to your midwife or GP but make sure you avoid the following.

High-impact sport or vigorous racquet sports

Can lead to abdominal trauma, falls or excessive joint stress (NICE, 2017).

Scuba diving

Can cause birth defects or fetal compression disease (NICE, 2017).

Exercise over 2500m above sea level

This might be an unusual one, we know, but it can lead to altitude sickness. If you are in those conditions and want to exercise, wait until you have acclimatised (NICE, 2017).

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.