During pregnancy, your body works overtime to support you and your growing baby. Even a simple task like grocery shopping can feel like an Olympic sport.
With your body going through so many changes and getting tired more easily, is it safe to exercise while pregnant?
Absolutely, says UNC Wellness Centers Certified Personal Trainer Mary Hale. As long as you exercised before you got pregnant, your pregnancy is not high risk and you have the all clear from your obstetrics provider. But your workouts might look a little different than before, and some moves are better for pregnancy than others.
Here, Hale answers some common questions.
Why exercise during pregnancy?
Working out during pregnancy helps women stay healthy and maintain stamina for labor and delivery. Exercise can help:
- Prevent gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and caesarean section
- Promote healthy weight gain
- Strengthen core and pelvic floor muscles for labor and delivery
- Improves mood and energy levels
- Relieve Constipation
How Much Should I Exercise?
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends pregnant women get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week, or 30 minutes five days a week. Moderate intensity means moving enough to raise your heart rate and start sweating.
And you don’t have to do those 30 minutes all at once. “Instead of brisk walking on the treadmill for 30 minutes straight, you can break it up into smaller steps throughout the day,” says Hale.
If you start having bleeding or fluid leaking from the vagina, dizziness, chest pain, calf pain or swelling, or twitching, stop exercising and contact your doctor.
What exercises can you do safely?
Think low impact, meaning exercises that increase heart rate through gentle movements. Low-impact exercises that are safe during pregnancy include walking, swimming, cycling on a stationary bike, modified yoga or Pilates, some aerobics classes, and light and modified resistance training (weightlifting).
Most aerobics classes can be made low impact with modifications, even step aerobics. The key is to have an instructor who knows you are pregnant and can therefore help you modify the workout. TRX classes would be a good example.
And don’t forget the benefits of training in the pool.
“Depending on the depth of the water, it absorbs about 85 percent of your body weight, making it extremely low-impact,” says Hale. “Water provides natural resistance, helping to strengthen your muscles and improve your endurance.”
Bodyweight squats are also beneficial for preparing the pelvic floor for birth, says Hale.
What exercises should I avoid?
Avoid all contact sports that put you at risk of being hit in the stomach, including volleyball, soccer, and basketball. Also avoid exercises that pose a risk of falling, such as calisthenics and horseback riding, Hale says.
Additionally, any activity that involves jumping, skipping, or generating a lot of momentum can put too much weight on the spine.
Jogging isn’t recommended after the second trimester, says Hale. However, if you are an experienced runner, jogger, or racquet sports player, you may be able to continue these activities during pregnancy. Talk to your doctor first.
You’ll also want to avoid any movement that requires you to hold your breath or press. Most people will not have a problem with this during cardiovascular exercise; but holding your breath can happen with strength training.
“Lifting too heavy will force people to lean on to increase the weight,” says Hale. “Breathing deeply throughout each repetition will avoid this problem.”
What if I hadn’t exercised before pregnancy?
Starting to exercise when you’re pregnant is fine, but if you weren’t exercising regularly before you got pregnant, now is not the time to start lifting heavy weights. Walking, using a stationary bike or elliptical at the gym, and water aerobics are great exercises for beginners, says Hale.
Be sure to start slowly, exercising for as little as five minutes a day, recommends ACOG. Then add five minutes each week until you can stay active for 30 minutes a day.
“If in doubt about anything, talk to an exercise professional for advice,” Hale says.
Will exercise be different during pregnancy?
You can expect to feel tired and out of breath more quickly during pregnancy, even doing the same workouts you did before you were pregnant.
“You’re expending more energy than usual because you’re sharing nutrients with your growing baby,” says Hale. “So even if you’re doing an exercise that you’ve done many times before, you’re burning more calories now because you’re exercising and also feeding the baby. Plus, you have a much higher blood volume during pregnancy. , so your heart works harder to handle the extra pressure.
You might also experience increased muscle soreness because your body weight is distributed differently.
And you may notice that you feel more flexible. This is because during pregnancy your body produces more of a hormone called relaxin, which helps soften the connective tissue in your joints to make room for the baby and prepare for birth.
Because relaxin makes your joints more mobile, it’s important to practice good form during your workouts to avoid injury, Hale says.
Can I do abdominal exercises?
Many people assume you should avoid abdominal work during pregnancy, but that’s not true, says Hale. Strengthening your core helps prepare you physically for childbirth and can also help prevent diastasis recti, a condition in which your abs separate in the middle as your belly grows.
“Many women who have exercised throughout pregnancy and have strengthened their core experience faster labor and are able to recover more quickly from vaginal births and C-sections,” says Hale. “It’s important to keep the core stabilized, especially during the third trimester, so the abs aren’t pressured to separate.”
To do this, avoid sit-ups or traditional sit-ups (especially after the first trimester) and instead focus on functional movements, such as planks. Planks can be done throughout pregnancy. As your belly grows, you may need to come off your forearms and move into a straight arm plank. Place a pillow under your body in case you cannot hold the position.
Hale also recommends pelvic tilts. A pelvic tilt involves lying on the floor or on a bed with your knees bent and tilting the pelvis by pushing your lower back into the floor and then releasing it. Pelvic tilts also help strengthen the pelvic floor.
Avoid abdominal exercises that involve twisting your torso while sitting, which can clutter baby’s space.
One of the best core exercises during pregnancy is one that anyone can do that requires no equipment: brisk walking.
Be sure to pump your arms and be careful not to overdo it. “You should be able to talk to someone, even if they’re breathing,” Hale says.
Where do I go if I need help or have questions?
If you don’t belong to a gym, ask your obstetrics provider for recommendations.
“There are many exercise classes for pregnant women that instructors must be certified to teach,” says Hale. “If you belong to a gym, talk to one of the personal trainers. Many of them, including all of the trainers at UNC Wellness Centers, have a background in exercise science and would be in able to help you answer a wide range of questions.
Mary Hale, MS, MPH, CPT, ACSM-CIFT, is a Certified Personal Trainer at UNC Meadowmont Wellness Center. She is also an inclusive fitness trainer certified by the American College of Sports Medicine, which allows her to work with special populations, including those with neuromuscular disorders, spinal cord and head injuries and intellectual disabilities.