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Pregnancy fitness has evolved, and a pregnant woman now has a vast array of options to choose from-prenatal yoga, pilates for pregnancy, HIIT for pregnancy, Zumba, running, swimming, cycling, you name it!
If you were a fitness buff through college and afterward, it seems impossible to exclude exercise from your pregnancy. However, you may be constantly bombarded with words of caution from apparent well-wishers, making you stop and think again.
If, for whatever reason, you have shied away from exercise so far in your life but have been told you need to be fit while pregnant, you most likely have no idea where to start. You may also be hesitant because you don’t know how much is too much.
So, why should you really exercise during pregnancy? How do you enjoy a healthy and fit pregnancy?
In the absence of any obstetric or medical contraindications, physical activity is not only safe but desirable, and pregnant women must be encouraged to continue or initiate safe physical activities.-ACOG
Benefits of exercise during pregnancy
Physical exercise has been proven to benefit pregnant women in many ways. These include:
- Better control of blood sugar levels
- Better sleep
- Better circulation
- Lesser aches and pains during pregnancy
- Fewer stress-related pregnancy complications
- Lower incidence of complications such as gestational diabetes mellitus, hypertensive disorders, preterm labor, and cesarean births
- Improved chances of having a vaginal delivery
- Reduced incidence and severity of postpartum anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders
Safe exercises for pregnant women
Being pregnant comes with so many questions and choices: which healthcare provider to use, what to eat, where to go, what to prepare yourself for, which meditation form to do, and so on and so forth. You don’t want to spend too much of your precious time wondering what fitness routine to take up.
If you’re looking for way to keep fit and healthy during pregnancy, the following exercises have been found safe and effective:
- Walking-Gentle walks are totally safe and an easy way to incorporate activity into your life. Whether in the morning or the evening, a stroll is a perfect beginner fitness option. Making it a romantic stroll with your partner or listening to your favorite tracks while walking can be a great way to unwind after a long day.
- Stationary cycling-This is an excellent way to incorporate cardio activity.
- Aerobic exercises-Running, swimming, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), as well as typically aerobic classes improve your stamina, endurance, and cardiac function. Skipping during pregnancy is also a great option if you are used to it and you enjoy it. With beginners, though, there is the risk of falls and lack of balance.
- Dancing – Dancing is not only enjoyable but rewarding in terms of physical and mental benefits. Zumba dancing is a high-intensity, largely cardio exercise unless the strengthen and tone version is incorporated.
- Resistance exercises with stretch bands or weights – These require stability, and you must always ensure you’re comfortable and supported while performing the exercise. Resistance bands are very easy to procure, low-maintenance, and cost-effective, and the related exercises are fairly easy to learn. Depending on your strength level, you can buy different resistance bands or have a couple of low- and high-resistance ones, using them to do squats, lunges, and even pelvic floor training. Most pregnant women can safely do dumbbell exercises, so you could invest initially in a 3-12 lb set of dumbbells, with 3 lb being the standard for a novice. The increments will be as follows: 3lb, 5 lb, 8 lb, 10 lb, and 12 lb.
- Upper and lower body exercises – Wall and knee push-ups as well as chest, upper and lower back, biceps, triceps, and deltoid exercises are encouraged. For the lower body, squats and lunges are great as they build muscle strength and improve posture and the ability to withstand the shift in gravity with increasing weight. Plus, they improve insulin resistance.
- Stretching exercises – Active and passive stretching exercises lengthen muscles and improve their tone, thus relieving any aches or pains. As your body weight gradually increases, your muscles will be able to better distribute it evenly over your skeletal structure if you regularly stretch them. This will also improve your joint stability.
- Hydrotherapy, or water aerobics-Water exercises eliminate the effect of gravity on the joints, and while it may not feel so, you put in a lot more effort underwater due to in-built resistance. This translates into a better cardiovascular workout, an additional benefit being the lower risk of injury. However, it may take a bit longer for pools to become as accessible as before the pandemic.
Cardio, strength, or both?
If you have used Youtube in your research, chances are you’ve come across words and phrases like “cardio,” “strength training,” “bodyweight only,” “no equipment workout,” or “circuit training.” Cardio-based exercises are those that increase the heart rate and give your heart a workout. Generally, these can also be termed aerobic exercises.
Since pregnancy already increases the workload for the heart, you need to be cautious with regard to your heart rate and how you feel. Cardio exercises basically give your heart some preparation for the marathon ahead (pregnancy and delivery). With each session, you are slowly enhancing your body’s ability to tolerate a high-stress situation and generally improving oxygen delivery to your tissues as well as those of your growing baby.
The importance of strength, or resistance, training lies in the fact that building muscle strength improves insulin resistance, which is an intrinsic feature of pregnancy. Better insulin resistance means lower chances of gestational diabetes or better outcomes if the condition is present.
Squats are especially beneficial for pregnant women with insulin resistance as they work the largest muscles in the body – the thigh muscles. Having gestational diabetes predisposes you to gestational hypertension, and exercise has been found to help prevent or ameliorate both conditions.
Is yoga safe for pregnancy?
Perhaps you saw a photo of your favorite celebrity poised atop a prana mat, engaging in a side split, burgeoning belly on display and an expression of mindful surrender on their face. However, when you walked into your yoga class, it felt like a far cry from what you had envisioned. Does that sound familiar?
I remember wanting to do a pregnancy photoshoot during an inversion pose, but never having mastered it pre-pregnancy, I ended up mightily disappointed that I could just about get the basics of a shoulder stand. Keep your expectations real is what I’m saying.
Yoga has been extensively studied and found highly beneficial for posture and relieving musculoskeletal aches and pains. It also helps to increase your overall levels of cardiovascular fitness and joint flexibility, enhancing your chances of a vaginal delivery.
Yoga is also relaxing for the mind, which makes it doubly beneficial for pregnant women. You can safely practice yoga during all trimesters; the sooner you start, the better.
Exercises and physical activities to avoid during pregnancy
Due to your altered center of balance and the different distribution of your weight over the joints, it’s best to avoid the following exercises in later trimesters:
- Abdominal crunches, or sit-ups. These could predispose you to or aggravate diastasis recti (separation of the six-pack muscles). Core exercises during pregnancy must target the sides and back to strengthen the core without additional stress on the rectus abdominis muscles.
- Lying flat on your back after 20 weeks. This is because the growing uterus would sit on the large blood vessels of the body, namely the inferior vena cava and the aorta, which would reduce the flow of venous blood returning to the heart and may suddenly result in low blood pressure. Lying on the belly, or prone, is harmful to the baby after 20 weeks due to compression of the uterus and the chances of injury to the fetus.
- Inversions in yoga. These are beneficial, but the risks of injury and the chance of falls are high if you have no prior experience because of the altered center of gravity and ligament laxity in joints during pregnancy due to the hormone relaxin. Thus, unless you’ve been trained in these poses or have expert supervision, it’s best to avoid them. Rigorous forms of yoga, like Ashtanga, must not be attempted by a novice, and Bikram yoga (which is practiced in heated environments) is harmful to pregnant women. Hatha, Iyengar, and other gentler forms of yoga are preferred.
- Any exercise you’re not unaccustomed to. An example would be suddenly setting off on a mountain hike after being largely inactive all year.
- Anything to do with contact sports. The primary concern here is potential injuries.
- Any exercise that requires a lot of coordination or balance. Think something like gymnastics. Your balance is impaired in pregnancy, and you may easily lose it since your joints are generally lax due to pregnancy hormones.
Conditions where you may have to avoid exercise in pregnancy
In case you have one of the conditions listed below, you should avoid exercise while pregnant or consult your doctor before you start.
- Recurrent second trimester losses (and explicit instructions to take bed rest after a threat of preterm labor)
- Low-lying placenta (placenta previa)
- A pre-existing heart condition (consult your healthcare provider)
- Any injury (consult your doctor about exercises that are safe)
- Multifetal gestation with reduced cervical length (to avoid preterm labor)
- Previous history of preterm labor
- Severe pain while exercising
- Vaginal spotting (light bleeding) or a leak of amniotic fluid
- Headache, chest pain, or breathing difficulties during exercising
- New onset viral illness, including coronavirus infection
Generally, it would be best to consult your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.
Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned athlete, it’s imperative that you integrate some form of exercise during your pregnancy. That would result in a happier pregnancy and reduce the chances of mental health disorders postpartum.
My advice is to make the exercise part of your day something you joyfully undertake rather than an imposition. Cherish this special phase and pamper yourself with the exercise your body deserves.
How far along are you? How have you included exercise during your pregnancy? Share with us in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.