We’re not going to beat around the bush here – if you’re wondering if you can exercise during pregnancy, the answer is yes, yes you can. It’s understandable that it might be scary – your body's the only thing protecting your baby from a world that it’s not quite ready for yet! But if you follow some basic rules and don’t push yourself too hard, light exercise throughout pregnancy has a number of benefits for both your baby and your ever-changing body.
If you’re used to exercising, the change from non-pregnancy to pregnancy exercise will probably come naturally. There may be some things you'll need to stop doing – discussed below. If you didn’t exercise before becoming pregnant, it can be a little daunting, but it’s perfectly safe. There may be occasions when your doctor advises against exercise (e.g. due to issues with asthma, heart disease, low placenta, etc). You should always discuss your exercise plans with them.
It’s advised that you don’t take up new sports during pregnancy. Stick to ones you’ve done previously, or take up gentle exercise like yoga.
It’s common knowledge that exercise is beneficial to our health. It can help with weight management, improve muscle and bone strength, boost our energy levels and even improve mood. This doesn’t change during pregnancy. You may feel sluggish, especially in your first and third trimester, but it’s important to get moving. Just a little bit of extra movement each day can do wonders for your health.
Help with body changes
From day one, your body will begin to change. You may not notice it at first, but there is so much going on inside of you. Exercising can help you to cope with these changes. It can prepare you for the stress of labour and birth by increasing stamina and strengthening your muscles. And it’s been found to lead to shorter labour times. It can also help with recovery once you’ve given birth. You’ll have increased muscle tone, which can help your body to recover faster (and enable you to get back to your pre-baby weight faster if you want to).
Many pregnant women experience food cravings. It may be tempting to indulge, but you don’t need any extra calories until your third trimester (where you’ll need 200-300 extra calories a day). You'll gain around 25-30 lbs over the nine months (although this varies from pregnancy to pregnancy). This extra weight is due to amniotic fluid, blood, your placenta, stored fat for delivery, etc. So, it’s fine to have a treat, but the idea of ‘eating for two’ is a bit of a myth. Being mindful of the types of foods that you eat can help to reduce excessive weight gain. Exercise can also help keep you at a healthy weight throughout those nine months, and help if you want to lose any weight post-birth.
Boost your energy
It may be difficult to believe that using your energy during exercise can result in you having more energy. Exercising while pregnant can strengthen your muscles, making activities easier. It can also strengthen your cardiovascular system which will mean you won’t get worn out as quickly. The last thing you want to do when you’re tired is to get up and move about, but keep in mind that it can help you in the long run.
Pregnancy can affect your sleep a lot, due to things like nausea, frequent urination, heartburn, aches and pains, etc. (See our blog post on sleep during pregnancy for more on this). Exercise can help you to use up excess energy and tire yourself out. This means you can have a better night’s kip (once you’ve sorted your 5+ pillows into a comfortable position, possibly kicking your partner out of bed in the process!).
Help with constipation
Exercise can speed up food moving through your body, which reduces the amount of water that's taken out of your poo. The higher water content will make it easier to pass. Exercise can also stimulate your bowels. It helps with the natural squeezing movement of your intestines which will help to move stools out. Try exercising around an hour after eating to give it time to start digesting.
Reduce back pain
It might be scary to exercise when you’re experiencing back pain for fear of making it worse, but by focusing on your deep core, you may be able to ease some of that pain. Posture strengthening exercises are key. Try prenatal yoga and Pilates, particularly positions that use squats.
Simple stretching can also help reduce tightness and pain. It’s important not to push yourself too hard with stretches, so start slowly. If it’s something that you’re used to, don’t push yourself any harder than you would have before pregnancy.
It’s also important to note that during pregnancy, your body releases a hormone called relaxin, which loosens ligaments and tendons. This extra fluid around your joints can make it easy to over stretch and can cause damage. So, even if you’re used to exercising, you should always keep in mind that your body is changing and you may need to take it easy with pregnancy exercise.
You may experience mood swings during pregnancy which can add to stress and be a negative experience for both you and the people around you. Exercise has been found to boost serotonin levels – a brain chemical which contributes to happiness and wellbeing. This is seen particularly in aerobic exercise.
A study from the University of Hull looked at the effect of a single exercise session on pregnant women. It found that those who participated in aerobics (aqua classes and gym studio classes) had an increased overall mood score. The aqua class participants also had a decrease in the depression sub-scale of the POMS. (POMS is a standard test with a mood scale that measures things like tension, anxiety, fatigue and depression).
Lower risks of complications
Exercise for anyone can help with reducing their risks of health complications, but there are some specific benefits that it has when it comes to pregnancy.
It has recently been found that eating less and moving more may not be the one-size-fits-all solution for keeping gestational diabetes (GDB) at bay. But GDB is more common in women with more body fat, particularly around their waist. GDB can increase risks of having a large baby (which can lead to birth trauma and shoulder dystocia), premature birth, stillbirth, and low blood sugar in your baby. It can also affect you for life: around 50% of women with GDB go on to develop type 2 diabetes. It’s important to talk to your healthcare professional if you are overweight or have any concerns about GDB.
Pregnancy exercise can also lower the risk of preeclampsia, which is where you have high blood pressure and protein in your urine. Around 6% of pregnancies are affected by mild pre-eclampsia, and 1-2% develop into severe cases. It can lead to fits (eclampsia), stroke, blood clots and complications with the baby (low birth weight, breathing difficulties, brain damage etc.). A number of studies have found links with exercise and reducing risks of preeclampsia. This is done through cardiovascular conditioning that lowers blood pressure, although more research needs to be done in this area.
What can I do?
There are many things you can do to make sure you're exercising while pregnant - you just need to be careful not to exert yourself. The NHS suggests a good rule of thumb: you should still be able to hold a conversation when exercising while pregnant and not become breathless. Use this to test if you’re exercising too strenuously.
Make sure to warm up and cool down, keep hydrated and try to do a little bit of exercise each day, or longer sessions at least 3 times a week. Even though you may be inside the confines of your home, there are still plenty of things you can do.
Walking (depending on space)
- This may sound silly, but walking is a great exercise and can still be done in the home as long as you have enough space. Try up and down the hallway or even the garden. (You'll probably want to stick on a podcast or something as it can get a bit boring)
- Aerobics are a great way to get the body moving and heart beating, and improve your muscle strength.
- If you’re new to aerobics, make sure to start slowly.
- Focus on low impact aerobics (one foot is on the floor – no jumping or leaping) that maintain your fitness rather than improve it.
- You may need to reduce aerobic exercises as you progress into your third trimester. Make sure to talk to your healthcare professional about the exercise that you’re doing.
- Some great online classes include BodyFit by Amy, The Bloom Method or Popsugar.
Yoga and Pilates
- Improve strength, flexibility and posture.
- Great for helping with aches and pains.
- Can help with breathing techniques and mental wellbeing.
- Couple these with some aerobic activity.
- Avoid any exercises that require you to hold your breath, put you under strain, or require back bends or strong twists.
- Check out this list of great prenatal yoga videos - perfect for the living room!
- Continue with strength exercises if you’re used to them.
- Use light weights to tone and strengthen.
- Make sure you don’t get overheated.
- How much you can lift depends on you as an individual. Make sure to talk to your doctor and trainer (if you have one).
- Quiana Welch, an Olympic weightlifter advises that “the goal is to stay active and healthy, not push yourself to the point of breaking.”
- If you've got a stationary bike at home, this is a great way to get some cardio in.
- As there are no roads, bumps, turns, etc. it's much safer than riding outside
- Although you might not feel like it with everything going on, doing some fun exercise can really help to boost your mood.
- Check out Hip Shake Fitness, some modified Zumba or do a YouTube search for the type of dancing you'd like to do (just make sure it's low impact and safe)
- You could also get your partner/family involved to get everyone moving!
Pelvic floor exercises
- These can help with strengthening your pelvic floor muscles, which are under a lot of strain.
- Weak pelvic floor muscles can lead to urine leaking and incontinence even after pregnancy.
- It’s done by tightening the pelvic floor muscles and holding (as though you’re holding in a wee) for 8 seconds, relaxing for 10 and then repeating. Repeat 10 times, 3 times a day.
- They can be done at any time – at your desk, while watching TV, etc.
What should I avoid?
Generally, sports that should be avoided are ones that aren't done indoors anyway, but we've included this list just in case.
- Exercising on your back after 16 weeks. Similar to the effects of sleeping on your back, exercising on your back can cause your bump to press against the main blood vessel and make you feel faint.
- Exercising in high temperatures or getting overheated.
- Contact sports where you may get hit such as football, kickboxing, netball, etc.
- Sports where you could fall such as skiing, horseback riding, ice skating, etc.
- Cycling in bad weather or off-road cycling.
- Scuba diving. Your baby has no protection against things such as gas embolisms (where an air bubble escapes from the lungs into a blood vessel - this can be fatal).
- Exercising at high altitudes.
It’s always important to discuss your exercise plans and any concerns you’re having with your healthcare professional. And don’t worry if you were doing the things that should be avoided before you knew you were pregnant - your little one is very well protected at the start of pregnancy when they’re still tiny.
Some women may need to avoid exercising while pregnant (talk to your doctor about this), but for most it is something healthy and positive that should be continued with or worked into your schedule. Remember: keep it light and don’t push yourself too hard.
Let us know in the comments below what exercises you do or did during pregnancy!