Pregnancy & Birth

Exercising during pregnancy: what you need to know

Exercising during pregnancy is good for you and your baby, but what type is best, how much and what should you avoid?  

Stephanie Osfield
July 2018

When it comes to exercise and pregnancy, what’s really best for you and your baby?

How often should I exercise during pregnancy?

The current guidelines for Australian adults recommend that we aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most, and preferably all, days each week.

“These guidelines also apply to pregnant women,” says Dr Will Milford, director of Kindred Midwifery, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, and spokesperson for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. “Exercise brings physical benefits for maternal fitness and the prevention of excessive weight gain, as well as benefits for psychological wellbeing, such as improved mood.”

Exercise during pregnancy also lowers the risk of problems like gestational diabetes, lower back pain, pelvic pain and incontinence, reveals Spanish research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It’s a good idea to discuss your exercise regime with your obstetrician or midwife during your first appointment, which is usually in your first trimester.

Which exercises are safe in pregnancy?

Provided you and your baby are in good health, pregnant women are recommended to do aerobic exercise such as walking (at a brisk pace for aerobic benefit), stationary cycling and swimming.

“Strengthening exercises are also important and may include using the body, resistance bands or light weights for resistance, says Dr Milford.”

Yoga and Pilates are popular strengthening options, and some studios have tailored classes for pregnant women.

You should always let your instructor know that you're pregnant before starting a class.

If you enjoy exercise like jogging or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and would like to continue during pregnancy, you may be able to, but Dr Milford recommends seeking medical advice.

It’s a good idea to do pelvic floor exercises throughout your pregnancy as these muscles are put under strain in childbirth, and these exercises can reduce your risk of stress incontinence.

Which exercises should I avoid?

Exercises to avoid include weightlifting (which can affect blood pressure), competition sports (a risk of contact or collision) or activities that include high altitude or pressure changes (such as scuba diving).

“Also avoid exercises which repeatedly require you to lie on your back,” says personal trainer Meg Campbell, particularly if you're 16 weeks pregnant or more.

“The weight of the uterus can cause compression of a large vein responsible for return of blood from your legs to your heart. Modify those moves to do them on your side or ask a fitness professional about alternatives.”

Can overheating during exercise harm a growing baby?

“While this is a theoretical risk, in practice it’s very difficult to raise core body temperature to a point at which it can impact upon the development of the baby,” says Dr Milford.

To be on the safe side, he recommends that pregnant women exercise only to the point where they still have enough breath to speak.

To reduce the risk of overheating, “Drink often to stay hydrated, wear loose-fitting clothing and avoid exercising in high temperatures or high humidity,” says Campbell.

This includes avoiding hot Bikram yoga.

If I feel nauseous or exhausted, how do I stay fit?

“I advise women not to worry too much about exercise in the first trimester due to [fatigue or nausea], and suggest they plan on getting back to their normal routines once these symptoms improve,” says Dr Milford.

If nausea and exhaustion persist, timing your exercise and choosing gentle exercise may be best. “For some women, this may mean doing Pilates or yoga first thing in the morning, while for others it might mean an evening walk,” Dr Milford adds.

What complications can make exercise during pregnancy less safe?

“Women at high risk for pre-term birth or bleeding during pregnancy, or those who have medical complications such as high blood pressure, may need to avoid certain exercise, so should seek advice from their obstetrician, general practitioner or midwife,” says Dr Milford.

Are my joints more susceptible to injury?

During pregnancy, a hormone called relaxin is released to help your body accommodate a growing baby. “As [this] causes joints to become more elastic and lose some stability, some pregnant women may experience a slightly higher risk of injury during exercise,” says Campbell.

To reduce this risk Campbell recommends that you:

  • Don’t overstretch or go too 'deep' into yoga postures. “Work through a range of motion that feels comfortable rather than forcing the stretch.”
  • Avoid high-impact exercises such as jumping, or activities where you change direction quickly, such as netball – particularly in the last trimester.
  • Go gently when resuming exercise after your baby’s birth. The relaxin hormone may still be present, making you slightly more prone to injury.

“Many women enjoy water workouts and swimming, prenatal yoga and Pilates during pregnancy, and these exercises are very safe and supportive of joints,” says Campbell.

“Pregnancy is a time to really tap into what feels nourishing and good rather than pushing yourself to the limit.”

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