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Exercise During Pregnancy

Keeping mom and baby healthy during pregnancy — and beyond

You might think you need to take it easy and cut back on physical activity during pregnancy to prevent harming your unborn child. But exercise is actually beneficial for both mom and baby.

"Whether it is a long walk, yoga or swimming, most women can and should exercise during pregnancy," says Cheryl D. Wolfe, MD, an OB-GYN at Rush University Medical Center.

Exercising can help you feel strong and empowered as your body grows and changes. It increases your natural sense of well-being while decreasing your risk of gaining too much weight and having gestational diabetes.

"Moving your body can also help you prepare for the birthing process — whether you deliver by C-section of vaginally — by boosting your cardiovascular system," Wolfe adds. "For your baby, exercise increases blood flow to the placenta, helping to make sure your baby receives vital nutrients. Also, if you're taking care of your body, you tend to follow a healthy eating plan."

Other benefits for moms-to-be who move include the following:

  • Improving posture
  • Reducing backaches
  • Relieving stress
  • Reducing constipation
  • Promoting sleep
  • Improving muscle tone
  • Building stamina

Which exercises are best for moms-to-be?

First, check with your doctor to make sure there isn't a medical reason why you shouldn't exercise (see below for a list of health issues that may make exercise risky). "It's a conversation with your healthcare provider that should continue throughout your pregnancy," Wolfe says.

If your doctor gives you the go-ahead, use common sense. "If you have to ask if you should be doing a risky sport, you probably shouldn't do it," Wolfe adds.

These are some activities to avoid while pregnant:

  • Contact sports — such as roller derby and football
  • Exercises that could cause trauma to the abdomen — such as kickboxing
  • Sports where you could fall — such as horseback riding, rollerblading, ice skating and rock climbing
  • Activities that could cause overheating or dehydration — i.e. Bikram yoga

With those caveats in mind, Wolfe offers the following tips to help you move more before, during and after you deliver:

Before conceiving

If you are considering becoming pregnant, exercise to your typical fitness level. Or, if you don't exercise regularly, think about starting a regimen to get good habits in place, Wolfe says. 

If you have been extremely sedentary, talk to your doctor first to determine how you can slowly build strength and stamina. Once you have the "all clear," try moving for 10 minutes a day and gradually increase both the duration and intensity of your workouts until you are doing at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity daily.

First trimester

During the first three months of pregnancy, women often are tired and fight morning sickness. But even a little movement can help.

“If you are not up to your normal routine, there is nothing like a simple walk for 30 minutes," Wolfe says. "The happy hormones kick in and you may feel more energetic."

Some women find that meditating or doing easy yoga activities with deep, slow breathing helps ease nausea.

If you are an elite athlete, it's OK to maintain your exercise routine. But this is not the time to train for your first marathon.

Second trimester

During weeks 12 to 24, most women feel much better.

"The pregnancy hormones have leveled off and you are usually not as fatigued or nauseated," Wolfe says. "You feel the baby move, and you are beginning to show. The pregnancy becomes real."

With the increased energy, most women can use an elliptical, do yoga, swim, jog or walk. "Thirty minutes a day, five days a week is ideal," Wolfe says. "If you are an elite athlete, it's OK to maintain your exercise routine (with the exception of the risky activities mentioned above). But this is not the time to train for your first marathon."

Third trimester

From week 25 to delivery, a woman's abdomen is distended, her joints are more lax and she tends to feel uncomfortable and awkward. "It is really important for these moms-to-be to continue the discussions about exercise with their physician," Wolfe says.

Sometimes, exercises might need modifications to make room for your baby. In yoga, for instance, instead of doing cobra on your belly, try cat/cow on all fours. "Be sure your yoga instructor is comfortable working with pregnant patients," she says.

Swimming remains a good option until delivery, allowing you the rare chance to safely be on your stomach and take the weight off your back.

Walking is also a great option — despite a popular misconception.

"It's a myth that if you do a lot of walking, it will bring on labor," Wolfe says. "In fact, it's good for you to keep moving and stay strong for labor and postpartum."

Postpartum

Take it slow and be careful after delivery to make certain you don't overdo things. A new mom's energy is low first few weeks postpartum as she heals and cares for a baby who is learning how to regulate sleep. Additionally, your abdominal muscles may have separated during the laboring process and your joints are still lax.

After two to five weeks — and clearance from your doctor — start out by doing a few sets of Kegel exercises and pelvic tilts. If you have clearance from your doctor, consider taking gentle or postnatal yoga classes or walking.

"Even if you are still bleeding, you can put on that pad and talk a walk around the block," Wolfe says.

Despite old wives' tales, exercise does not adversely affect breast milk. "Breast feeding also helps decrease your weight and shrink your uterus," Wolfe explains.

Two months postpartum

Most women are able to get back to their full exercise regimens by eight weeks, though some must wait an additional month.

For those who had challenging pregnancies — such as blood pressure challenges — or delivered by C-section, plan on taking more time to return to your workout.

"Women who were exercising prior to getting pregnant typically don't have problems go back to their routines because their bodies are well-conditioned," Wolfe says. "And if you maintain your level of fitness throughout pregnancy, you'll likely be eating better and find it easier to eventually return to your pre-pregnancy weight."

Making exercise a family affair

In addition to helping you stay healthy and strong while bringing your child into the world, being active will help you raise a healthier child. If you embrace exercise, your child will mimic your good habits, Wolfe says.

"Children watch their parents and copy their health habits," she adds. "Find activities the whole family can do together. Healthy living becomes contagious, and the whole family can benefit."

When to avoid workouts

While most women can exercise during pregnancy, some should not. Hold off if any of the following is true:

  • You are experiencing vaginal bleeding
  • You are very obese and have not discussed exercise with your provider
  • Your doctor says you are at risk for pre-term labor
  • You are pregnant with twins or triplets
  • You have cervical insufficiency
  • You have placenta previa
  • You already have a major injury
  • You have uncontrolled high blood pressure

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