Pregnancy fitness - what exercise to do and what to avoid

Advice on exercising when you’re pregnant has changed over the years. Here, specialist pre and postnatal fitness coach Mark Hibbitts, explains which exercise is safe for you and your baby, and what should be avoided

Just fifty years ago the exercise recommendation for pregnant women was one mile of walking per day, and even then it was suggested this should be broken down into several sessions. Thankfully those days are gone, and current research has shown that, in the absence of complications, it's better for both you and your baby to keep active throughout your pregnancy.

If you’ve been thinking you’d have to cancel your gym membership this could be excellent news. However, you shouldn’t just continue with your pre-pregnancy exercise programme. Research has shown that during pregnancy some types of exercise are more beneficial than others, so lets take a look at what you should and shouldn’t do.

What can I do? And what should I stop doing?

First of all, it’s very important that you talk to your doctor before starting or even continuing an exercise programme during pregnancy. There are several relative and absolute contra-indications related to pregnancy exercise, and for safety’s sake you must make sure that none of these apply to you. Once given the go ahead there are also some clear guidelines to follow.

Firstly, the goal of a pregnancy exercise programme should be to maintain your fitness level and never to increase it. You should also never use it as a way to prevent or limit your pregnancy weight gain.

Proper nutrition for you and baby is extremely important, so the calories you’ll burn exercising will need to be replaced. It won’t always be possible, but try whenever you can to make good choices, eat healthily, and keep well hydrated. When you exercise aim to drink more water than usual.

The most thorough research in the field of pre and post natal fitness is by Dr James Clapp, who states that “women who perform activity for 45 minute sessions at least five times per week will get the most benefit from exercise during pregnancy”. He also goes on to say that  “The exercise must be weight-bearing and aerobic for the benefits to be appreciated”. Weight-bearing exercise includes running, walking, weight training and dancing.

Obviously weight–bearing exercise does not include swimming, and many women I speak to find swimming very relaxing, especially the weightlessness of being in the pool during the latter stages of pregnancy. That’s great, and if you enjoy swimming by all means keep it up, but weight bearing exercise has been found to be more beneficial in helping to counteract gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, leg cramps, and a whole host of other pregnancy induced symptoms.

Warming up before exercise is more important than ever when pregnant. Aside from reducing the chance of injuring a muscle or joint, warming up for 10-15 minutes and slowly cooling down again afterwards prevents sudden and dangerous changes in blood pressure.

Stretching is also important, but you must be extra careful because of the hormonal changes in your body. Relaxin, the hormone that softens your connective tissue in order to aid the birth process, is present in all your joints. Over stretching could result in permanent damage, so gently stretch to ‘biting point’ and hold it for 30 seconds. Any sort of developmental stretching to actually lengthen the muscles should be avoided.

Things to try

If you have access to a gym there is a myriad of equipment you can use. But remember, no pain, no gain is not a sensible philosophy to have while pregnant!

Treadmills are great for a good aerobic workout.

Elliptical trainers can also be used with less impact on your knees, but do listen to your body. The twisting movement of the pelvis could have a detrimental effect so if pain in the pelvis is felt, do stop immediately.

Stationary bikes can also be good for an aerobic workout but are non weight-bearing and may cause pubic discomfort.

- During pregnancy we don’t recommend using a heart rate monitor anymore, as research has found the ‘talk test’ to be a better guide to exertion levels. The ‘talk test’ basically states that if you cannot carry on a normal conversation during exercise, you should slow down until you can.

Your workouts should always include some strength training as this will help greatly when baby comes along. It’s probably best during pregnancy to opt for fixed weight machines rather than free weights as they are extrememly stable and operate within a fixed range of motion, meaning you won’t overextend your joints. The only real exceptions are the inner and outer thigh machines that may put too much pressure on the Symphasis Pubis joint.

But I don't like the gym! What else do you suggest?

If you’re not a gym member don’t despair. There are plenty of things you can do at home or in the park.

Running, walking and calisthenics (press ups etc) are all recommended.

Swiss balls (or birthing balls) are also fantastic for getting and staying in shape, and are highly recommended by most midwives for improving ‘core stability’ and helping to relieve back pain during pregnancy and labour.

In later articles I’ll advise you on how to incorporate exercise into your day to day life, and offer some specialised teaching points to help you get the most from your workouts.

Don't try these while pregnant

Here is a list of high-risk activities you shouldn’t be doing while pregnant.

• Snow skiing and waterskiing
• Rock climbing
• Snowboarding
• Ice skating and ice hockey
• Diving and scuba diving
• Horse riding
• Road or mountain biking
• Bungee jumping

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Mark Hibbits and Newborn Fitness are experts in specially designed exercise programmes and sensible nutritional advice for pregnant women and new mothers.

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