Staying Active for a Healthy Pregnancy

We all know that regular exercise is important for our overall health and well-being; exercise keeps our weight in a healthy range, wards off disease and illness, improves our mood, and so on.  The benefits of exercise don’t go away when we are pregnant; in fact, mamas who maintain some regular physical activity during pregnancy generally experience fewer unpleasant pregnancy symptoms like aches and pains, are less fatigued, and are more likely to have easier labors and faster recoveries.

This was certainly the case for me in my last pregnancy (and so far in this one!).  With Callum, I walked my dogs 3 miles or so almost daily and ran another 3 miles or so about 4 days a week.  I was able to maintain this routine (granted my running slowed quite a bit!) until about 32 weeks when I was suddenly struck with bad lower back pain (which seemed to be a result of my hips spreading).  I decided not to force running at that point and switched to the more low impact elliptical along with regular walking.  My last workout was the day before I delivered – and I felt well enough to go for a gentle walk within days of delivery.

I credit exercise in large part for helping me to have a problem free pregnancy (aside from the brief bought with back pain, I never had any major discomfort), an easy delivery, and a quick recovery.   While there are certainly no guarantees, staying active during pregnancy is likely to have the following benefits:

  • Better quality sleep and less fatigue:  Pregnancy deals a double blow in the energy department – fatigue (especially in the first trimester) coupled with difficulty sleeping (especially as the belly gets bigger and makes getting a good position harder).  Exercise combats both – it increases your energy level (even a quick walk around the block can combat the afternoon doldrums) and it makes it easier for your body to rest at night (just avoid lots of activity immediately before bed).
  • Healthier weight gain:  Of course pregnant mamas need to gain weight.   And while there are sometime factors outside of our control that can contribute to gaining beyond the recommended 25-35 pounds, exercise goes a long way towards helping our bodies gain steadily but not out of control.
  • Fewer complications:  Just as exercise prevents disease and illness in non-pregnant women, it helps pregnant women stay healthier and more pain free.  While few pregnancies are without any discomfort (as my own experience demonstrates, exercise doesn’t prevent all aches!), staying active better enables your body to cope with the stresses on your cardiovascular system brought on by pregnancy.  It also keeps your muscles flexible and strong – allowing them to better handle the burden of carrying the pregnancy pounds and the changes to your posture brought on by your expanding belly.  Exercise can also prevent or lessen the effects of common pregnancy problems such as gestational diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • An easier labor and delivery:  It makes sense that staying active – continuing to condition your body – would help prepare you for the physical challenge of labor.   Many exercises such as squats and stretches help prepare your hips and pelvis for the work of pushing.  And of course, don’t forget your Kegels to strengthen your pelvic floor.  Cardiovascular activities, including walking, build your endurance – a key factor in pushing through the marathon of labor.

If you’ve had an exercise routine pre-pregnancy, it’s safe to continue your normal activities.  Even if you’ve not exercised before, you can still start exercise while pregnant; you should, however, stick with low-impact activities and begin slowly.  Here are a few tips to make exercise during pregnancy part of your daily routine:

  • Walking is a fabulous form of exercise and something that anyone can do, regardless of your previous fitness level.  All you need is a pair of shoes!  If you live in a very hot or cold climate, you might find walking indoors (around a track or even the mall) a more comfortable option.  And walking is something you can resume easily after delivery – and easily include baby.
  • Other good choices include swimming (it’s nice to feel weightless!) and prenatal yoga.  Many gyms and yoga studios offer prenatal classes.  There are also a wide selection of prenatal workouts available on DVD, even some geared for those who have never exercised before.  It is fine to continue activities such as running if those have been a part of your pre-pregnancy routine.
  • Aim for 30 minutes of activity a day.  If you’ve never worked out before, ease into your routine and slowly build up.
  • First trimester fatigue and nausea can be an exercise killer.  Fight the urge to sit on the couch and get yourself out the door.  I would often tell myself I’d try for 10 minutes; if I didn’t feel more energized at that point, I’d hang up my shoes for the day.  I always felt more energetic after getting started and was able to keep going.  Most women find once they hit 12 weeks or so, getting back into a regular routine is much easier – so hang in there!
  • Listen to your body.  In past, women were advised to keep their heart rate under 140 bpm.  This recommendation is now considered outdated.  Instead, focus on the talk test for exertion – you should be able to hold a conversation comfortably while you exercise.  If you feel you can’t, slow down.
  • It’s ok to slow down!  Most women aren’t able to maintain the same level of intensity throughout their pregnancy – not surprising as you’ll have an increased blood volume, increased demand on your respiratory system, and extra weight (not to mention a baby sitting on your bladder!).  Don’t worry about setting personal bests or keeping up with the clock.  What matters is getting out there.
  • Sometimes you may have to stop exercise.  If your doctor or midwife places restrictions on your activities, check to see if there are still things you can do.  Even small amounts of activity can make a difference.
  • If you are exercising, you will need extra calories; make sure those are coming from healthy food choices and not from constant “splurges.”  Eating multiple small meals throughout the day keep your body fueled and help ward off fatigue and nausea.
  • Don’t forget to incorporate Kegels, squats and stretches into your daily routine.
  • For more information about the benefits of exercise during pregnancy, check out James Clapp’s Exercising Through Your Pregnancy Staying Active for a Healthy Pregnancy.  Julie Tupler’s Maternal Fitness: Preparing for a Healthy Pregnancy, an Easier Labor, and a Quick Recovery Staying Active for a Healthy Pregnancy has helpful information and suggested exercises for strengthening your core and pelvic floor while pregnant.

We’d love to hear about your experiences with exercise during pregnancy…and stay tuned as I workout my way through #2!

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