While experts of old said pregnant women should keep off their feet, doctors these days talk about the benefits of keeping fit. Regular exercise can help reduce some of the aches and pains that accompany pregnancy, including back pain, constipation, bloating and swelling. Working up a sweat during the day can also make for better sleeping at night.
And that’s not all. “Women who exercise during pregnancy report improved pain tolerance and a shorter postpartum recovery,” says Anita Sadaty, M.D., attending physician in obstetrics and gynecology at North Shore University Hospital, Manhasset, NY.
Before beginning any exercise program, check with your doctor. In most cases, even if you’ve never exercised, it’s safe to start gradually. Try a walk around the block or a couple of minutes on a recumbent bike, then add five minutes each week. Aim to get active at least 30 minutes a day, most days, and watch your intensity, says exercise physiologist Geralyn Coopersmith, M.A., CSCS, author of Fit and Female: The Perfect Fitness and Nutrition Game Plan for Your Unique Body Type. You should be able to speak with a slight breathlessness. If you’re gasping, you’re working too hard. If you’ve got enough wind to belt out, “I Am Woman,” step it up a notch.
Start your workout with a five- to ten-minute warm-up — slow walking, or knee lifts, for example. Finish by reducing the intensity slowly, allowing your heart rate to return to normal. Then do a gentle five- to ten-minute body stretch. Always drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
The following activities are considered safe; nevertheless, tell your doctor what you’re doing to stay fit.
WALKING is a great cardiovascular workout. It’s low-impact, which keeps stress off joints. When walking:
- Take faster, not bigger, strides.
- Bend your arms, make gentle fists and focus on driving your elbows behind you.
- Strike with your heel and roll through the foot.
WATER WORKOUTS in a pool provide resistance with a low risk of injury. The water also keeps you cool and helps prevent leg swelling. If swimming isn’t your strong suit, you can tread water or walk across the pool.
YOGA improves balance, which is affected by pregnancy weight, and it helps reduce stress with its breathing and meditation. Yoga postures can also open hip joints, which will help you in labor and delivery. Avoid inverted postures or twisting motions.
RESISTANCE TRAINING — with weights, rubber bands or your body weight — strengthens the musculature around the joints, which can help counteract the higher risk for injury during pregnancy. Pay attention to your breath. “Forcefully exhaling without actually releasing air, which is common while lifting weights, can increase your risk of injury in the pelvic area,” says Dr. Sadaty. To cut that risk, use lighter weights and increase repetitions.
PHYSIOBALL WORKOUTS can help you work your abs without lying on the foor. Sit on the physioball while doing bicep curls or shoulder raises to passively work your abs, or rest your back on the ball and do crunches (use only a slight pelvic tilt).
A Fit Nine Months
How you’re feeling will likely influence your level of activity as your pregnancy progresses. Pay attention to what your body is telling you.
DURING THE FIRST TRIMESTER don’t work out too hard, and avoid exercise that will raise your core temperature excessively.
DURING THE SECOND TRIMESTER you will likely feel an energy surge, but don’t overdo. Switch to lower impact activities as your joints adapt to your increasing weight. Avoid lying flat on your back — use a body wedge or bolster to lift your upper body or elevate your right side with a pillow. Also, because your circulatory system has a harder time adapting to quick changes in position, group exercises together — sitting exercises followed by lying-on-your-side movements, for example.
DURING THE THIRD TRIMESTER your energy levels might drop again, and you may be uncomfortable. Seated exercises such as recumbent biking or lifting weights while sitting on a bench or physioball are good choices. As your center of gravity changes, avoid classes or activities that require much balancing or rapid changes in position.
Back on the Horse (So to Speak)
Check with your doctor before resuming exercise. Dr. Sadaty says you can begin two weeks after a vaginal delivery with no tears or laceration repairs. Wait four weeks after a vaginal delivery with an episiotomy or repair, and four to six weeks after a C-section. “The exception to this is walking, which you can do whenever you feel comfortable,” she says.
Start with low-to-moderate-intensity low-impact cardio such as walking, swimming, water aerobics or recumbent biking. Kegel exercises can help strengthen the pelvic floor and decrease the likelihood of urinary incontinence. Be sure to include gentle neck, shoulder, chest, lower back and hip stretches to release the tension you’ll feel from all the forward flexed positions you’re using.
IF YOU’RE AN ATHLETE …
Wear supportive shoes and avoid jerky, bouncy, high-impact motions or quick changes in direction. Some activities you should avoid — particularly in late pregnancy — include:
- Downhill skiing
- Contact sports, such as basketball
- Martial arts
- Step classes
- Scuba diving
- Water skiing
- Horseback riding
- Ice skating
- Roller blading
- Outdoor bike riding
Leslie Pepper is a freelance health-and-fitness writer based in Merrick, NY.