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Exercising Whilst Pregnant: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

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It’s been drummed into us.  We all need to exercise for our own health and wellbeing.

But what happens when we are pregnant?  Should pregnant women also engage in some level of sport or physical activity throughout their pregnancy?

Pregnant women are often overwhelmed with conflicting information on the subject so I hope to help you sift through some of these myths and facts through the information outlined below.

What’s right for you?

Whilst I was pregnant with my son, I continued to teach BodyPump and BodyAttack classes up to the week prior to giving birth.  I was lifting heavy weights and I was running, participating in a 10km run at five months pregnant.  Is this what I think all other women should be doing?  Absolutely not.

If you do choose to exercise during your pregnancy, the most important thing to remember that it is your body, your pregnancy and your rules (unless of course you are experiencing a more complicated than normal pregnancy, then all the rules become your doctor’s).

Prior to embarking on any antenatal exercise program, I like to discuss the following with my pregnant clients:

  • The type of exercise they like to do
  • Their general fitness levels
  • Any complications with their pregnancy, and,
  • How much exercise they did before they conceived.

Is exercising during pregnancy for everyone?  Absolutely – but you will need to first receive clearance from your doctor or midwife, and then adjust it to the factors above.  Your body is going through an amazing change process and doesn’t need to be introduced to anything else new and stimulating at the moment for risk of injury, and worse still, risk to the pregnancy.

The benefits of exercising whilst pregnant

I have coached many women throughout their pregnancy and have seen the numerous benefits which have resulted from it.  Many of these ladies managed to incorporate a myriad of exercise options into their routine, depending on their individual circumstances, including weight training, boxing, light cardio and even high intensity sessions like CrossFit!

All of these ladies commented on how they managed to control their weight better, felt better about their changing bodies, and how happy their were to maintain their fitness through their pregnancy.  Exercise also helps prevent the onset of gestational diabetes and is recommended for women who develop gestational diabetes.

My own personal experience confirmed not only all of the above but that exercise also helped me with my labour and birth.  My core and pelvic muscles were more conditioned and my endurance was also trained, which made labour and pushing easier.  The best thing of all, however, was that all the training that I put myself through helped me better manage my pain threshold.  I was able to handle the pain through contractions and I was lucky enough to be able to stick to my all-natural birth plan as no other complications arose.  I do credit the smoothness of my delivery to the exercise I continued to do during my pregnancy, which did wonders for my physical and mental strength.

crosstrainer

Low impact exercise on the crosstrainer… watch your heart rate doesn’t get too high

Things to be aware of when selecting appropriate exercises

Whilst I am obviously a big advocate of exercising whilst pregnant, I do want to draw attention to a few things before you hit the gym floor:

  • Avoid overheating:  It is recommended that pregnant women avoid overheating for prolonged periods while exercising.  Your core body temperature is higher whilst you are pregnant and it is thought that further increases in temperature brought on by exercise could be harmful to the baby if you experience them for prolonged periods.  This is usually most important in the first trimester of your pregnancy so it is a good idea to be extra careful around that time, especially if you have been through a complicated pregnancy or have found it difficult to get pregnant prior.  Many women still manage to do group fitness classes and even run during their pregnancies, so this is also dependant on how conditioned your body is to certain types of exercise.  It is always wise, however, to choose a cooler time of day to exercise, to exercise in an air-conditioned gym and of course, keeping yourself hydrated whilst you work out.
  • Watch your heart rate:  It is best to exercise at a moderate intensity, as prolonged intense exercise can reduce blood supply to the placenta.  “Moderate” intensity can differ from person to person depending on you existing fitness level, so heart rate can be an inaccurate way of measuring the intensity level.  I prefer to use the Perceived Rate of Exertion scale – tune into how hard you feel you are working and try to stay within a range at which you can still hold a decent conversation.
  • Avoid lying on your back:  It is not advisable to exercise lying on your back after the first 13 weeks of pregnancy (the start of the second trimester).  Lying on your back can allow your uterus to press against a large vein, which returns blood from your legs up to you heart (the inferior vena cava), and this pressure may significantly lower your blood pressure as well as the oxygen supply to your baby.
  • Avoid over-straining your muscles:  During pregnancy, your body produces a hormone called relaxin, which “relaxes” your ligaments, allowing you to deliver your baby through your pelvis during birth.  The downside of relaxin is that pregnant women are at higher risk of joint injuries, such as sprains and strains.  Be extra careful of high impact activities which put pressure on your hips (such as running or jumping) and exercises which may strain your core (and consequently your lower back), which you will probably have difficultly switching on effectively especially in the later stages of your pregnancy.  Personally, I found planks and and push-ups abnormally challenging as I was unable to effectively activate my core.  Pay close attention to such exercises as the last thing you want once your baby is born is a bad back!
  • Avoid falls: I remember being five months pregnant and attempting a trek in the snow.  Bad idea.  Your changing shape affects your centre of gravity and therefore your balance, which puts you at risk of falls.  I would probably avoid any activity which possibly involves a fall, or requires a good amount of balance.
  • Work with an experienced professional: I cannot stress this enough.  If you are unsure of what type of exercise you should be doing, seek the advice of an experienced Personal Trainer who specialises in pre/post-natal training.  They should be able to screen you and tailor an exercise program to suit you and your growing belly.

Can you start exercising if you have never exercised prior to pregnancy?

I have always advised my clients that pregnancy is not the ideal time to start something new because your body is dealing with physical, mental and hormonal change galore already. The main aim of exercise during pregnancy should be to maintain your current fitness level and existing muscle tone, especially in the core and pelvic region to assist with labour and birth, not to create an extra load on your body by expecting a growing fitness level or embarking on a weight loss program.

If you’re absolutely keen to start exercising whilst pregnant, walking is your best and safest option.  Swimming is also an excellent option as there is no impact in the water, your bodyweight is more buoyant in water, and the risk of overheating is considerably less.

Warning signs

Sometimes, pregnancies can be complicated.  This can even apply to women who have exercised for a long time prior to pregnancy.  The biggest warning sign that I always ask my ladies to tune into is their gut feeling.  There will be many publications that you will read, and many professionals who you may trust to guide you through your pregnancy, but you will instinctively know what is safe or unsafe for your body, if you are pushing yourself too hard, or if an exercise just feels wrong.  Trust your instincts and if you are working with a trainer, make sure that you communicate this immediately so that the exercise can be modified accordingly.

If you experience any of the following symptoms whilst exercising, it is best to stop the activity and consult your doctor immediately:

  • High heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Uterine contractions
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Amniotic fluid leakage
  • Excessive shortness of breath
  • Faintness
  • Back or pelvic pain
  • Decreased foetal movements

Best of luck ladies, and have fun!

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