Should I Exercise While Pregnant?

exercising while pregnant(*This article is not intended to be medical advice, and you should always check with your doctor before starting a fitness routine, especially if you’re pregnant!)

You want to do the right thing for yourself and your baby, but when it comes to exercising while pregnant, you’re probably receiving conflicting advice from your friends, doctor and mother in law.  Once you begin to show, you may even find complete strangers coming up to you in public, advising you on your diet, exercise and health.  But what is really the right choice when it comes to exercise during pregnancy?

Research shows that exercise while pregnant is almost always a good idea.  In fact, it’s now recommended that healthy women with normal pregnancies should get 20-30 minutes of moderate exercise per day.  This mirrors the recommendation for the general population of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, which works out to just over 20 minutes per day on average.  Studies show, however, that most people in the general population, as well as most pregnant women, are not meeting this recommendation. 

Until recently, pregnant women were advised to avoid exercise out of concern for the health of the fetus.  What if she falls while running?  Is heavy breathing and aerobic activity putting stress on the developing child?  Could exertion during weight lifting cause premature labor?  All of these concerns seem valid at first glance, but the science doesn’t support them.

Risks of a Sedentary Lifestyle During Pregnancy 

Roughly 40% of average weight women gain more than the suggested amount of weight during pregnancy, and that number jumps to over 60% for women who were overweight before the pregnancy began.  While that means that it’ll likely take the mother more time to return to her pre-pregnancy weight, the consequences are more serious than that, for both the health of the mother as well as the long term health of the child.  

By both limiting exercise and increasing caloric intake as doctors used to suggest, many women were gaining considerably more than a healthy amount of weight during pregnancy.  That weight   proved hard to lose after the child was born, but more importantly, increased the risk of complications such as high birth weight for the child, as well as increased the risk of obesity in the child later in life.

Benefits of Exercise During Pregnancy

Research now shows that exercise during pregnancy can help reduce the risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, cesarean delivery, low back pain, pubic symphysis pain and urinary incontinence.  It also reduces the risk of unhealthy weight gain in the mother and abnormally high birth weight in the newborn child.

While it was once thought that you shouldn’t begin a new exercise program during pregnancy, doctors are now recommending that everyone, even the most sedentary, begin or continue exercising at a moderate level throughout their entire pregnancy, right up until the day of delivery.  For women who were previously inactive, substantial improvements in outcome can be seen if exercise programs are started as soon as possible, ideally right after a first prenatal visit confirms that the pregnancy is normal and healthy, and has no unusual contraindications for exercise. 

What Counts as Exercise During Pregnancy?

The American College Of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that pregnant women, without specific medical contraindications identified by a doctor, should use the same exercise guidelines as the general population.  That includes 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, or roughly 20-30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day most days.  Moderate for pregnant women means that the heart rate is elevated, but you can still carry on a conversation comfortably.  

If you were a runner before pregnancy, and you can comfortably carry on a conversation on a 5 mile loop with a friend, then that qualifies as “moderate.”  For more sedentary individuals, a brisk 20 minute walk might suffice.

Prenatal yoga is quite popular as a pregnancy exercise program, but while yoga has been shown to reduce pain and improve mental health during pregnancy, for most individuals it’s not strenuous enough to count as the recommended 20-30 minutes daily.  It’s an excellent supplement, but not quite enough to show the same benefits as moderate exercise showed in clinical trials.   

Exercises to Avoid During Pregnancy

During pregnancy, hormonal changes cause loosening of connective tissue and joints to prepare your body for the birth.  This increases the risk of joint injury and overstretch injuries because you’re likely a bit more flexible than normal.  The added stress of weight gain, and a change in your center of gravity later in the pregnancy also make it difficult to continue certain activities.  

Here’s a list of some types of exercise to avoid during pregnancy:

Activities that involve a high risk of falling including skiing, horseback riding, mountain biking, rollerblading, ice skating, etc.

Any activity with a risk of even mild abdominal trauma, such as contact sports like football, volleyball, dodge ball, etc.

High impact activities that put stress on your joints or have jarring motions like bouncing or jumping, or anything with rapid changes in direction such as sprinting or soccer drills

Full sit ups and waist twisting activities are also contraindicated for multiple reasons.  Primarily because of changes to your abdominal muscles to allow space for the growing fetus, but also because later in pregnancy there will be too much baby in the way.

Any exercise that involves breath holding or involves exposure to very hot, humid climates