Long gone are the days when pregnant women were treated like fragile creatures who should spend nine months resting on the couch. The advice today for most women who are expecting is exactly the opposite. Doctors urge their pregnant patients to be as active as possible because it turns out that exercise has myriad benefits for both mom and baby.
“Exercising during pregnancy not only increases fitness levels, but it reduces the risk of developing gestational diabetes and preeclampsia,” explains Kohar Der Simonian, MD, a physician with One Medical Group in San Francisco. And of course, being fit while pregnant is just as good for your overall health (lowering your risk for heart disease, improving your mood, and helping you sleep better) as being fit when you’re not pregnant.
But beyond helping a woman stay healthy during pregnancy, regular exercise may have important benefits for the fetus, too. A study at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences found that pregnant women who engaged in moderate aerobic activity for at least 30 minutes three times a week had fetuses that showed similar fitness benefits. Both the women and their fetuses had significantly lower heart rates than their sedentary counterparts.
Exercise May Ease Labor
As an added bonus, exercising while you’re pregnant can actually make your delivery go faster and more smoothly. “Pregnant women who engage in moderate cardiovascular activity for at least 30 minutes three times a week require less pain medication during labor and are discharged from the hospital sooner than women who don’t exercise,” says Der Simonian. Add Kegel exercises (which tone and strengthen the pelvic floor muscles) to your prenatal workout routine, and you may also reduce the amount of time you labor. According to Der Simonian, “Doing 20 minutes of Kegel exercises daily starting around week 20 of pregnancy can shorten the second stage of labor. When the pelvic floor is stronger, you are able to push more effectively.”
Here are a few things to keep in mind when planning your prenatal exercise.
Talk to Your Doctor First
Before you exercise during pregnancy, you should have a discussion with your provider. He or she can help you make the right modifications based on your specific situation. Certain conditions–like placenta previa (a condition in which the placenta covers or lies too close to the cervix) or being at risk of pre-term labor–will call for more caution.
Continue Your Pre-Pregnancy Exercise Routine
As long as you are fit, healthy, and experiencing a normal pregnancy, you should be able to continue enjoying most of your pre-pregnancy activities–including running, weight lifting, and yoga. Der Simonian advises pregnant woman to base their level of intensity on how fit they were prior to pregnancy. “If you’re very fit, you can continue strenuous exercise–even long-distance running or cycling–but expect that you will be a bit slower than before you got pregnant.”
If You Haven’t Exercised Before, Start Now
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. “Pregnancy is an ideal time for lifestyle modifications, including increasing physical activity,” says Der Simonian. “You should be working hard enough to feel slightly short of breath, but not so much that you couldn’t carry on a conversation with someone.”
Tweak Your Routine for Your New Body
Throughout your pregnancy, there are some activities that you should avoid. Skip stuff that carries a high risk of falling–like skiing and horseback riding–because a fall could cause dangerous pelvic and abdominal trauma. Beginning late in your second trimester and during your third trimester, avoid exercises that involve lying flat on your back, as this position can cause low blood pressure as well as fetal distress. And while it’s safe to continue a gentle yoga practice, keep in mind that the hormone relaxin increases during pregnancy and its job is to make your ligaments looser. “Because your tendons and joints will be more flexible, it’s possible to overstretch and cause injury,” cautions Der Simonian.
High temperatures can cause fetal distress (that’s why hot tubs and saunas are pregnancy no-nos), so exercise in an air-conditioned room or outside when temperatures are cooler.
Fuel Up and Stay Hydrated
Staying hydrated is especially important during pregnancy, so increase your water intake accordingly before, during, and after an exercise session. And don’t forget to eat! “If you’re working out for more than 45 minutes, you should have a small snack,” recommends Der Simonian. “Glucose levels can drop if you don’t eat something, and that can affect the fetus.” Over time, low glucose levels can cause fetal heart rate instability and poor fetal growth.
Listen to Your Body
There are lots of benefits to being active throughout your pregnancy, but that doesn’t mean you should go to extremes. If you experience light-headedness, bleeding, chest pain or dizziness during a workout, stop immediately. “This is not the time to push too hard or challenge yourself to achieve your fastest 5K ever!” says Der Simonian. “This is the time to pay attention to your body and how it feels.”
Der Simonian, K (expert opinion). One Medical Group, San Francisco CA. Mar. 20, 2012.
May, Linda E, et al. Effects of Maternal Exercise on the Fetal Heart. http://www.kcumb.edu/News/maternal_exercise.asp. Accessed Mar. 20, 2012.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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