Exercise During Pregnancy

Regular physical activity is more important than ever during pregnancy.

Not only does exercise during pregnancy offer a range of physical and mental benefits for mums-to-be, it's also great for your bub.

Figuring out what types of exercise are safe, what to avoid and how to adapt your workouts to your changing body can be daunting.

To help you take the guesswork out of staying fit for two, we've compiled all the information you need to make the right fitness choices so you can exercise during pregnancy with confidence.

Benefits of Exercise During Pregnancy

Regular exercise offers many benefits for pregnant women, including:

  • Increased energy
  • Weight control and healthier self-image
  • Stress relief and improved mood
  • Improved sleep
  • Decreased back pain and fewer pregnancy aches
  • Better posture
  • Decreased chance of pregnancy illnesses such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and postpartum depression
  • Easing of pregnancy symptoms such as constipation, bloating and swelling
  • Preparation for the physical stress of labour and birth
  • Shorter and easier labour for some women
  • Faster recovery from labour and birth
  • Faster return to pre-pregnancy weight and fitness level after birth

As if that isn't enough to convince you to lace up your sneakers, recent research shows exercise during pregnancy provides an array of advantages for your baby too:

  • Lower foetal heart rate that persists for a month after birth, indicating a healthy heart
  • Improved foetal lung health
  • Slightly lower (and healthier) birth weight, which can reduce the chance of obesity and heart disease later in life
  • Lower chance of gestational diabetes in the mother means a decreased chance of associated problems for the baby,
    including stillbirth, birth defects and diabetes
  • Higher IQ - by eight points!

Get the Green Light From Your Doctor

Before you start a new exercise program like those prescribed within 12WBT's Pregnancy Program, or continue your pre-pregnancy routine, be sure to talk to your doctor to make sure it's safe for you. If your pregnancy is progressing normally, you should be able to continue with your regular training as long as you monitor how you're feeling and make adjustments if needed.

Although women who weren't active before pregnancy used to be told they shouldn't start exercising while they were expecting, it's now considered safe and very beneficial to do so as long as you take it slowly.

Safe Forms of Exercise During Pregnancy

Several activities are safe for all levels of fitness, including:

  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Stationary cycling
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Water aerobics
  • Low-impact aerobics or other pregnancy exercise classes
  • Step and elliptical machines
  • Dancing

If you engaged in the following exercises before pregnancy, they're safe to continue in moderation:

  • Running
  • Strength training
  • Outdoor cycling (some doctors recommend stopping at the second trimester to avoid falls)
  • Non-contact ball sports such as tennis and racquetball (played gently)

Exercises to Avoid During Pregnancy

Be wary of sports or activities that carry a high risk of falling, such as downhill skiing, horse riding, rollerblading, waterskiing and gymnastics. You also need to proceed with caution in such contact sports as soccer, rugby, netball, hockey, volleyball and baseball - especially during the final trimester, when your baby is more exposed to outside knocks and bumps.

Activities that require you to hold your breath or that affect normal breathing, such as scuba diving and hiking in high altitudes, should be avoided.

General Exercise Tips During Pregnancy

Once your doctor has given you the go-ahead to exercise, aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most (if not all) days of the week. You should still be able to talk without feeling short of breath.

Start slowly if you're new to exercise, but don't be afraid to break a sweat. If your pre-pregnancy fitness level was intermediate, keep doing what you were doing as long as you feel good. While that rule also applies if you were super-fit before pregnancy, you might need to scale back your workout intensity slightly. At the very least, you shouldn't try to increase your fitness level or beat any personal bests. Whatever your level of fitness, listen to your body - it's an age-old cliché, but it's particularly important during pregnancy.

Keep in mind that during pregnancy, weight loss shouldn't be the goal of your prenatal workouts. Instead, focus on quality and consistency in your training. And don't forget to hydrate well before, during and after your workout.

It's a good idea to invest in some new exercise gear, such as clothes that will help you stay cool and comfortable, a sports bra to support those ever-growing breasts and new shoes to prevent injuries.

You might feel too exhausted and nauseous to exercise during the first trimester, but try your best to stay active as it can help ease the severity of your pregnancy symptoms. That said, don't be afraid to rest when your body is telling you to slow down.

During the second trimester of your pregnancy, you'll probably have more energy and stamina to exercise - enjoy it while you can! By the third trimester, you should perform no more than three vigorous exercise sessions a week, but you'll probably feel too tired and heavy to do more than that anyway. Still, try to be active in some way every day.

Pelvic Floor Exercises

It's important to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles during pregnancy as giving birth will weaken them. Weak pelvic floor muscles can lead to difficulty controlling your bladder or bowels.

To identify your pelvic floor muscles, contract the muscles that stop your flow of urine midstream (but don't do them while urinating - this could weaken your muscles over time).

Contract the muscles and hold for five seconds, then relax for five seconds. Do three sets of 10 repetitions a day. Gradually work up to contracting for 10 seconds and relaxing for 10 seconds. Make sure you only contract your pelvic floor muscles and not those in your stomach, thighs or bum.

Important Precautions

It's important to avoid overheating, especially during the first trimester, as it could be harmful to your baby. Make sure you hydrate properly, avoid exercising in hot conditions, and don't use spas or saunas (but don't worry if you used one before you knew you were pregnant).

Never exercise to the point of exhaustion - remember to monitor the intensity of your workout and stop if you feel tired. Also, don't lift heavy weights (use only light to medium ones) or exercise when you're sick.

When you reach the second trimester of pregnancy, you may want to consider using an incline bench or step when performing exercises that require you to lie flat on your back. The weight of your uterus on a large vein known as the inferior vena cavena may slow the flow of blood from your legs to your heart and make you feel dizzy if you lay on your back for long periods of time.

Because your blood pressure drops after the fourth month, rapid changes in position (such as from lying to standing) should be avoided to prevent dizzy spells. And to avoid placing excess stress in your abdominal muscles, always remember to roll over onto one side and raise yourself up by your arms when getting up from a lying position.

As your weight increases and your body shape changes, your centre of gravity will move forward. This can affect your balance, so be careful when performing exercises that require stability, even if you did them with ease at the beginning of your pregnancy.

In the second and third trimesters (but particularly in the last 13 weeks), you should also steer clear of exercises that require excessive jumping, hopping, twisting, stretching or bouncing, or frequent changes in direction. During pregnancy, your body releases a hormone called relaxin that relaxes your ligaments to prepare for childbirth, but it also increases your risk of joint injuries such as ankle and knee sprains.

Warning signs

Stop exercising immediately and consult your doctor if you experience:

  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the face, hands or feet
  • Calf pain
  • Difficulty walking
  • Muscle weakness
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Uterine contractions
  • Cramping in the lower abdomen
  • Back pain
  • Decrease in foetal movement
  • Leaking of amniotic fluid

Who Shouldn't Exercise During Pregnancy?

You shouldn't exercise at all during pregnancy if you've had a threatened miscarriage or gone into premature labour, or if you have persistent vaginal bleeding, a low-lying placenta (placenta praevia), a weak cervix (cervical incompetence), heart or lung disease, very high blood pressure, or a multiple pregnancy of three or more babies.

While you may still be able to exercise, you should definitely talk to your doctor and proceed with caution if you've had a threatened miscarriage or premature baby in previous pregnancies, if you're expecting twins, you're very underweight or overweight, or your baby has been small at times in your current pregnancy. Other reasons to be careful include preeclampsia, high blood pressure, diabetes, severe anaemia, asthma, and heart, lung, joint or muscle problems.

Pregnancy Exercise Myths Busted

For many years, women were told to avoid exercise altogether during pregnancy because it was thought to be dangerous for the baby. And even when medical experts started to encourage pregnant women to stay active, it was long believed that certain activities were risky when in fact they weren't. Unfortunately, old myths die hard - and many of them are still being perpetuated today. Here are four of the most common pregnancy exercise myths busted.

Myth No 1: It's Unsafe to Run During Pregnancy.

As long as you were a runner before pregnancy and you feel fine while you're running, there's no reason not to continue. But keep in mind you probably won't be able to keep up your pre-pregnancy pace and intensity. Go slow and steady, and stop running if it no longer feels right.

Myth No 2: You Shouldn't Let Your Heart Rate Exceed 130bpm.

Because your resting heart rate increases and maximal heart rate decreases during pregnancy, heart rate is an inadequate measure of exercise intensity. Exercise at a pace you feel comfortable - but not to the point of exhaustion.

Myth No 3: Abdominal Exercises Are Unsafe During Pregnancy.

Quite the contrary. A strong core and abdominal muscles can make your pregnancy, delivery and recovery easier. While you should avoid exercises that use excessive core strength, such as full sit-ups or double leg raises, exercises like the plank, standing pelvic tilts and seated belly breathing are perfectly safe.

Myth No 4: If You Experience Any Adverse Symptoms, You Must Stop Exercising for the Rest of Your Pregnancy.

In normal pregnancy, women can usually carry on with exercise but many will experience breathlessness and occasionally brief palpitations and sometimes become lightheaded. Rest assured that these are all normal signs but do make sure you chat to your doctor.

Although you should stop exercising immediately if you experience symptoms like spotting, dizziness, nausea or pain, you won't necessarily have to give up exercising for the duration of your pregnancy. Consult your doctor right away to determine the best course of action.

For more expert advice on how to stay healthy and active during pregnancy, sign up to the 12 Week Body Transformation.