Safety, Benefits and Guidelines for Exercising During Pregnancy

November 4, 2019 - 9 minutes read

Exercising While Pregnant

Exercising while pregnant

It’s not uncommon for expecting mothers to feel some hesitancy when it comes to pairing exercise and pregnancy. Not only can the symptoms of a changing body make it challenging to get motivated, the uncertainty of what type of exercise is safe to engage in can lead a lot of pregnant women to refrain from activity altogether.

As much as it may seem like a good time to relax and take it easy, the prenatal period is actually a really important time to be active. With benefits like reducing pregnancy complications and improving many aspects of mental and physical health, engagement in physical activity can change the total experience of pregnancy and provide a major head start when it comes time for labour and delivery.

Is it safe to exercise during pregnancy?

For decades, many guidelines took a very cautious approach to prenatal exercise. Though it was understood that physical activity was generally safe, the clinical trials were low and, as a precaution, the recommendations strongly encouraged that all pregnant women be carefully evaluated prior to any type of exercise program.

Fast-forward to today, after hundreds of studies have been performed to test the pairing, and women who are experiencing a routine and healthy pregnancy have been given the green light when it comes to activity. According to a 2015 update from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG), exercise is safe and beneficial for this population and poses minimal risk of complication, even for those who were not active prior to getting pregnant. It not only encourages women to exercise prior to and throughout pregnancy but also to get active much sooner during the early stages of the postpartum period.

The updates have also become much clearer with regards to which conditions could make exercise unsafe and which would require that exercise be closely monitored. These risk factors can be viewed in Box 1 and Box 2 of the ACOG Committee Opinion:

Absolute contraindications to aerobic exercise during pregnancy from the 2015 ACOG Committee Opinion

As a general rule, always let your doctor know that you’ll be engaging in an exercise program. If you have been diagnosed or are at risk of any of these comorbidities or if there is any doubt or concern about safety, your doctor or midwife will be able to give you the guidance that you need for your individual pregnancy.

Benefits of prenatal exercise

During pregnancy, your body undergoes a lot of changes that can lead to a fair amount of discomfort during this time. With the addition of postural training, aerobic activity and strength work, many of these ailments can be reduced or alleviated, including low back pain, pelvic pain, swelling, constipation and incontinence.

Physical activity can also help boost energy levels and mood, which are important factors in reducing your risk of fatigue and depression. From a more clinical standpoint, exercise can lower your risk of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension and excessive weight gain, and can even prep your body to return to exercise must sooner after childbirth.

But moms aren’t the only ones that gain a positive boost from prenatal physical activity. Babies of moms that exercise regularly are often lighter, leaner and experience fewer newborn complications, and it’s also suggested that these infants may be calmer and better self-soothers in the early years.

Effects of exercise on labor and delivery

Seeing these health benefits throughout your pregnancy is extremely important and as any mom will tell you, a leg up during delivery is also a major plus.

On average, women who undergo a prenatal exercise regimen deliver their babies 5-7 days earlier than those who don’t and typically undergo a shorter pushing stage during hard labor. In many cases, total labor time is shortened by an average of 2 hours and it is thought that this is the result of a stronger core and improved stamina.

When compared with women who didn’t exercise at all during pregnancy, those who did received 25% fewer cesarean sections, had less need for pain relief, saw lower uses of Pitocin (the chemical that induces labor) and received 50% fewer episiotomies.

While exercise doesn’t completely guarantee that you’ll be part of all the above statistics, including activity in your daily regimen allows you to control what you can for birth and vastly improves your chances of experiencing a smooth delivery.

Basic recommendations for prenatal physical activity

To see the most benefit from a prenatal exercise program, women are encouraged to include 20 to 30 minutes of moderate-intensity strength and conditioning exercise on most, if not all, days of the week. This means that for 150 minutes per week, you should be moving your body in a way that challenges your systems.

Unsure what constitutes as “moderate-intensity”? The talk-test is a useful tool to gauge this:

While exercising, pay attention to what it feels like to have a conversation. For low-intensity goals, you should be able to both talk and sing comfortably. For moderate-intensity goals, the aim is to be able to talk but not be able to sing. For high-intensity goals, neither talking nor singing should be attainable.

If you weren’t active prior to your pregnancy, don’t let that hold you back as there’s no bad time to start a physical activity when you’re pregnant. Additionally, if there are days when you feel unwell or can’t be active, don’t feel guilty – simply listen to your body and take the time to rest and recover.

Good activities to engage in during pregnancy

If you were already active prior to getting pregnant, there’s a good chance that you may be able to continue much of what you were already doing. Though some modification may be necessary due to the changes that are happening in your body, great activities to engage in during this time include:

Walking, jogging or running
Swimming*
Stationary cycling
Low impact aerobics
Modified yoga or Pilates
Racquet sports
Strength training

*Swimming or rebounding in the water (moving against the water pressure) is one of the best options for exercise during pregnancy. The hydrostatic pressure can help reduce swelling while the buoyancy can lift the weight of the baby up off your pelvis and help alleviate pelvic and low back pain.

It’s also important to note that not all types of exercise are a good fit for this time. Activities to avoid during pregnancy include:

Contact sports
Activities with a risk of falling
Scuba diving
Hot yoga or hot Pilates*

*During hot yoga and Pilates, the core body temperature rises and this can cause your risk factors to increase, especially throughout the first trimester.

Conclusion

Exercise is an important piece of the pregnancy puzzle and can positively impact the prenatal experience. It’s important to note though that pregnancy is definitely a time to listen to your body and your physician. If an activity doesn’t feel good or you have any concerns about getting moving, listen to your gut and make adjustments or pull back. Always do what’s right for you and your growing baby.

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