Moms-to-be were once told to take it easy. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that healthy pregnant women engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week.
That can help them maintain fitness levels and have more stable and manageable weight gain as well as a decreased risk of gestational diabetes, according to Jaclyn Bonder, MD, of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Many women agree. Sarah Canney of Farmington, New Hampshire, calls childbirth “an athletic event. Exercising during pregnancy helped prepare me for the actual event.”
Studies have shown that regular exercise may reduce the likelihood of a cesarean section, and can help to ease aches and boost energy levels. And activity offers an outlet for mental stress, too. “When there’s another human being inside you, it can feel like everything you do is for them,” says Canney. “It was nice to have something that was for me.”
If you have a regular fitness routine, it’s okay to continue as long as you feel well and maintain proper nutrition and hydration. If you don’t exercise, it’s still a good time to move more; Bonder recommends gradually building up the length and intensity of your workouts. Prenatal barre and Pilates classes are good options because they build core strength and decrease risk of back and pelvic girdle pain.
Experts also recommend strength training. “Keeping a mom strong can make the rehabilitation [postpartum] easier,” says Abby Bales, DPT, founder of Reform Physical Therapy in New York City. She recommends a full-body routine that can be performed with resistance bands, weights or even your own body weight.
Other tips for exercise-minded moms-to-be include:
• Find a prenatal exercise class. Instructors can make sure you perform exercises safely and offer modifications.
• Use the “talk test”: Being able to talk but not sing while exercising indicates a moderate activity level.
• Steer clear of contact sports or activities where there is a risk of falling. If you like yoga or Pilates, skip heated classes.
• Avoid lying on your back for more than a few moments. It can hinder the flow of blood back to your heart.
• Stay hydrated. “If you feel lightheaded or dizzy, stop and drink some water,” says Bonder.
• Work with a pelvic floor physical therapist. To find one, visit the American Physical Therapy Association.
Some women shouldn’t exercise during pregnancy. Doctors recommend against it for those with heart conditions, preterm labor, placenta previa (in which the placenta partially or completely covers the cervix), preeclampsia (a condition marked by symptoms such as high blood pressure and protein in the urine) and anemia.
“If you feel contractions or experience vaginal bleeding or leakage of amniotic fluid, it’s a sign to stop,” says Bonder. Chest pain, balance problems or decreased fetal movement are also red flags. Talk to your doctor, especially if something doesn’t feel right.
Even when it comes to the more common effects of exercise, how you feel while working out may change as your pregnancy progresses. “It’s important to listen to your body,” says Bonder. “If something hurts, learn to modify it or decrease the frequency.”
Bales adds, “As the body changes, I worry about a mom putting too much force on herself in the case of jumping, heavy lifting and running. Can you create the intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize yourself in dynamic movements?” If not, Bales says you may risk injury.
Take Canney, for example, who says her experience could serve as a cautionary tale. She had weekly running mileage goals during her second pregnancy, thinking it would help her bounce back faster. Instead, “I didn’t listen to my body and I would power through,” she says. She ended up with mild pelvic organ prolapse (in which weak muscles allow organs to fall out of position).
With her third pregnancy, Canney only did what felt good. She also worked with a pelvic floor physical therapist, someone trained to check that the pelvic floor muscles are healthy.
The therapist’s guidance “made a huge difference,” Canney says. “If you compare my return to running between my second and third pregnancies, I bounced back far quicker the last time.”