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Staying healthy while pregnant is extremely important, for you and your baby. Being pregnant doesn’t mean that you need to stop working out, or that you can’t start. A tailored exercise and workout plan in pregnancy can support a joyful birth. In this blog, we look at pregnancy-safe workout options for expectant mothers.
Pregnancy-Related Physical Change
Pregnancy involves significant changes to your body. Mamas-to-be will experience weight gain and postural changes as the baby grows. Abdominal and pelvic floor muscles are stretched and weakened across the course of the pregnancy, which can result in back and pelvis pain and issues with urinary leakage. Fluctuation in hormone levels plays an important role in this process, with the hormone relaxing increasing laxity (looseness) of ligaments and hypermobility of joints and impacting circulation.
Avoiding the Temptation to Hibernate for 9 Months
Reading this, you might feel tempted to retreat to your bed and hide under the covers for 9 months. That’s understandable, as it can feel daunting to recognize that your body is changing. Many Mamas-to-be experience a desire to hunker down and hibernate. Perhaps you feel worried about your body’s changes, and as if you have no control over the process. For some women, old-wives-tales that exercise during pregnancy can harm your baby and prevent them from physical activity. It is important, then, to sort the facts from the fears.
The Good News: Exercise Can Decrease Labor Duration
Evidence shows that the physical changes of pregnancy need not be a passive process. There are plenty of things you can do that complement and support your changing physique. Midwives have been advocating for the importance of exercise during pregnancy since the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published the recommendation for exercise in 2002. Evidence shows that being physically active during your pregnancy can help you to cope with labor and get back into shape after the birth. In a recent study, Mamas-to-be who exercised in water during their pregnancy presented a shorter duration of labor than those who did not. The difference was especially marked concerning the duration of the first and second stages of labor. Remembering this can be a powerful motivator to building fitness in pregnancy.
How to Work Out Safely in Pregnancy?
So, how to balance physical exercise and working out in a way that complements your changing body during pregnancy? There are some tips to be aware of to help you ensure your workouts are safe and accessible for both you and your baby. Regardless of your current fitness level, there are ways to benefit and gain from pregnancy workouts.
Start From Where You Are
Consider your current fitness levels. It is unwise for anyone (pregnant or not!) to suddenly embark on daily 10k runs when their previous running experience was solely confined to running up a check at the local takeaway! So, start from where you are. Aim to keep up your normal daily physical activity or exercise, whether that is running, yoga, dancing, weights, or swimming). You can then add in some additional exercises if you feel comfortable doing so. And, if you are starting from a baseline of zero exercise, begin gently. Increase your activity by building in some short, regular walks to the local shops. Over time, you can make the walk longer and/or increase the pace. To begin with, you are aiming for no more than 15 minutes of continuous exercise, 3 times a week. Increase this gradually to daily 30-minute sessions.
Listen to Your Body
Be aware of your own body and listen to what your body needs. Now is not the time for punishing workouts, or pushing yourself beyond your limits. For safer pregnancy workouts, listen to your energy levels. Do not exhaust yourself. A helpful rule of thumb is that you should be able to hold a conversation as you exercise. If you find yourself getting breathless, then reduce the pace. That might mean a move to gentler forms of movement and exercise as your pregnancy progresses. If in doubt, consult your maternity team.
Consider Classes and Instructor-led Led Sessions
Exercise classes are a great option when you are pregnant, in that they are led by an instructor who can oversee and guide your workout. There are specialist pregnancy workouts, such as aqua-natal-aerobics or pregnancy yoga classes. Any reputable, qualified instructor will want to speak to you about your health and pregnancy before you embark on such a class. And, if you go to a generic exercise class that is not aimed specifically at pregnant women, do ensure you tell the instructor that you’re pregnant. If you are a regular gym attendant, ensure you update your membership details to let the gym know you are pregnant.
Classes and gyms may include access to a range of exercise equipment you may not have available otherwise – weights, gym balls, and yoga blocks, for example. These are likely to be shared equipment. Consider taking your anti-bacterial wipes with you to ensure you can sanitize and wipe down shared equipment before use.
Exercising at Home
It may be you prefer to exercise alone, or away from a busy class. Perhaps you have concerns about being in a crowded space whilst pregnant or may prefer to work out in the comfort of your own home.
If you prefer to exercise at home, remember to include a gentle warm-up before exercising. Ensure you feel comfortable in the space you will exercise in. Avoid extremes of temperatures – you don’t want to get too hot (or too cold) as you exercise and have water to hand for hydration purposes. To get psychological (as well as physical) benefits from the workout, declutter your space to help yourself relax. It’s hard to enjoy stretching and moving your body if your eye and mind are drawn to piles of clutter in the corner and dusty skirting boards. If needs be, employ a cleaner to free you up to spend time on your pregnancy exercise plan.
Wherever you choose to exercise, it is good to include a variety of exercises in your workout to get a range of benefits. Cardiovascular exercise will help you to maintain effective lung capacity and build your stamina. Stretches can be incorporated, for example, calf stretches can reduce swelling in the legs associated with pregnancy. You can also include stretches and weights work for your quads and pecs into workouts to build strength. Aim to also include pelvic floor exercises to maintain support for the pelvic contents. It’s also possible to include stomach-strengthening exercises to strengthen abdominal muscles and support your back. Speak to your midwife, or a qualified physiotherapist for the specifics of appropriate abdominal exercises for you according to your own specific health needs. Gentle standing and squatting-based exercises in the final couple of weeks of pregnancy can support the alignment of the baby and transition into the birth canal.
Avoiding Higher-Risk Exercise
Some sports and activities do carry a higher risk of harm or injury whilst pregnant and these should be avoided. Anything where there is a risk of falling is not advised. Steer clear of horse riding, skiing, ice hockey, and rock climbing. Equally, contact sports such as kickboxing, judo, and rugby can expose you and your baby to the risk of being hit in the stomach and are to be avoided.
Exercise that involves lying on your back for long periods is also to be avoided, particularly after the first trimester of pregnancy. The weight of your baby and amniotic fluid can press on the main blood vessel bringing blood back to your heart if you lie for long periods on your back.
So, for a joyful pregnancy that includes the benefits of physical activity, aim to remember:
- Physical exercise whilst pregnant has been shown to have multiple benefits.
- Listen to your body.
- Build your stamina and strength gradually.
- Consider the environment you exercise in – whether that’s at home alone or with others.
- Aim for variety in your exercise routine but steer clear of high-risk activities.