“I’m not a regular mom, I’m a cool mom.” Amy Poehler’s character in Mean Girls is so so good. But I don’t mean to say that you will turn into a leisure-suit wearing, dog toting, mocktail drinking mama. But the benefits of exercising during pregnancy are enough to celebrate by buying yourself some athleisure. And maybe calling yourself a “cool mom” to boot.
Today, I’m gonna lay down some of the benefits of exercise during pregnancy and why it’s essential for a healthy pregnancy for both you and your baby. I’ll also give you some insight on the not-so-nice possibilities with a sedentary pregnancy, and some guidelines to follow to help keep you safe and prevent future complications.
The benefits of exercise during pregnancy
Our time is precious, and that’s why I don’t take every ol’ recommendation that comes my way. And I bet you’re like this too, so let me lay it out for you: exercise during pregnancy will decrease your risk of aches and pain, make labor easier, and help you recover after birth.
In no particular order, here are more specific examples of how exercise during pregnancy may benefit you:
- Improved cardiovascular/respiratory function – doubly important during labor and because baby shares your blood supply
- More energy and less fatigue
- Decreased risk for gestational diabetes (and decreased need for insulin if you do get it)
- Less risk of pre-eclampsia (anyone else just want to cry thinking of Lady Sibyl Crawley from Downton Abbey?)
- Prevention of excessive weight gain
- Prevention of urinary incontinence
- Increased endurance
- Improved body mechanics decreasing the risk of injury
- Better posture
- Decreased varicose veins
- Less constipation and improved gut health
- Fewer hemorrhoids
- Improved sleep
- Decreased heartburn
- Fewer leg cramps
- Decreased anxiety and severity of postpartum depression
- Improved habits of self-care for when the baby is born
- Less morning sickness
- Increased muscular strength
- Increased mental strength and sense of self-control
- Prevention and/or relief of back pain
- Improved self-image and self-esteem
- Shorter labor
- Improved recovery post-labor and postpartum
- Reduced risk for C-section or need for assisted vaginal delivery
How does exercise affect the baby during pregnancy?
And if that’s not enough reason for you to move your amazing body, how about the fact that exercise is actually good for your baby?! In what ways? I’m so glad you asked.
Below are some ways that exercise may help your baby before even entering the world outside the womb:
- Decreased risk of gestational diabetes = reduced risk of large for gestational age newborns
- Decreased risk for hypoglycemia from complications of gestational diabetes, which can lead to the opposite problem, reduced glucose levels for baby and slowed growth
- Fewer spontaneous miscarriages
- Higher APGAR scores
- Improved microbiome and immune system strength (which stays with us a long and some studies show these may even be passed on to our grandchildren!)
- Decreased risk for obesity as the child ages
- Improved development of behavioral function
- Improved language skills
- Enhanced motor function including attention to task and reaction times
- Improved cardiovascular regulation
What If I Don’t Exercise During Pregnancy?
For some of us, hearing all the benefits (and there are a freaking lot!) isn’t enough. We need both the carrot and the stick, as they say. So what if you are still feeling like exercise just isn’t for you?
First off, let me say, it’s probably not as much time and effort as you think it’s going to be, but we’ll address recommendations for exercise during pregnancy below. But before we get to that, let’s put in black and white what you might be at increased risk for with a sedentary pregnancy (essentially reverse all the good I listed above):
- Excessive weight gain
- Increased risk for gestational diabetes
- More nausea
- Increased incidence of leg cramps
- More frequent heartburn
- Increased swelling and carpal tunnel pain
- Greater incidence of round ligament pain
- Lower back, SI, pubic symphysis pain
Risks of Exercise During Pregnancy
The risks of the right type of exercise, meaning mild to moderate, during pregnancy for healthy pregnancies are pretty low. In fact, if you don’t have any of the contraindications below, you should definitely be moving your body!
Exercise may present risks if you are performing high-intensity exercise, particularly if you haven’t already been pushing yourself with your workouts.
Look for a program that will help you gain both the strength and mobility needed for helping you feel good and prevent injury during your pregnancy, labor and postpartum. You’ll want to strengthen while not overly taxing the pelvic floor. You’ll want to stretch while keeping in mind your body is full of the relaxin hormone. And you’ll want to make sure you’re causing pain while exercising.
If you are already in beast mode, modifying your exercise routine during your pregnancy and after giving birth is important for helping prevent other issues down the road – most markedly incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, and diastasis recti. <link to article> The great news is that exercise actually helps prevent these things too, so it’s really about a balanced approach!
And in case you were worried, most recent studies do not show that you’ll significantly reduce blood flow to your baby while exercising. You might actually help with getting a better flow to the baby if you do exercise!
Check-in with your doc before starting or continuing with exercise if you have been diagnosed or suspect you have any of the following:
- Severe cardiovascular, respiratory or systemic disease
- Uncontrolled hypertension, diabetes, seizure disorder, or thyroid disease
- Ruptured membranes or premature labor
- History of rapid labor or poor fetal growth
- Persistent bleeding after 1st trimester
- Early pregnancy bleeding
- Incompetent cervix
- A sedentary lifestyle with very poor fitness
- Preeclampsia or toxemia
- Multiple pregnancies (triplets, etc.)
- Palpitations or arrhythmias
- Poor fetal growth or intrauterine growth restriction
- Anemia or iron deficiency
- Extreme over- or underweight
- Placenta previa
When to Start Exercising During Pregnancy and How
Supposedly there’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” It’s kind of the same with pregnancy.
Some studies say you should start exercising at least 6 weeks before trying to conceive, some say 3 months. Regardless, getting yourself in shape before heading down the baby bump road is great.
But let’s say you haven’t donned a pair of athletic shoes (except for the cute ones that go with our super-comfy athleisure ;)) in a minute. Guess what, you can still hop on the exercise train and get yourself ready for labor. Plus you’ll enjoy all those good benefits we just talked about.
Start with 15-20 minutes, three times a week. You can walk, cycle, swim (this one feels particularly good in the later stages of pregnancy), do yoga or pilates, and strength train.
Still too much? Seriously start with 5 minutes. Set a timer. Or just move during commercials.
I’m not kidding. Just bringing some movement and awareness of your body will make a difference. And once you start feeling how freaking awesome your body is, you’ll want to move it more. Get curious about yourself sister!
Some specific recommendations with exercising:
- Deep abdominals (i.e. not sit-ups)
- Back extensors
- External hip rotators
- Quadriceps, and
- Pelvic floor
Go for high rep, lower load if weightlifting (8-12 reps).
Avoid the Valsalva maneuver (bearing down) as this will place a strain on the pelvic floor.
- Some women perform this bearing down when they try to do a kegel. If you’re not sure if you’re doing one right, check this <link to article> out, and ask your physician or pelvic floor physical therapist
Focus on breathing, particularly exhaling during the challenging part of the exercise.
Stretch these using static or slow dynamic movements and/or breathing techniques, avoiding pain and end-range:
- Hip flexors
- Hip adductors
- Pelvic floor
After the 4th month of pregnancy, be more mindful of lying on your back – in some women this can reduce blood flow by compressing the vena cava.
- If you’re worried about this, don’t stay on your back for more than a few minutes and move if you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded
- Remember you’re on your back when you go to the OBGYN, so a few minutes shouldn’t cause problems
Remember to warm-up (dynamic stretching or low-intensity cardio can be good for this) and cool down (returning to low-intensity cardio or easy bodyweight movements).
Stop exercising (or don’t start) if you feel:
- Overly fatigued (we don’t want to exercise to exhaustion!)
- Feverish or sick
So there you have it, friends. Exercise during pregnancy is good for you, your baby, and even future generations.
Let me know what other questions or concerns you have about exercise during pregnancy! And if you’d like more info on how to connect better to your body during pregnancy or after, check out my Body Basics e-book.
Do y’all have any stories of how exercise during pregnancy helped you?