When it comes to exercise and pregnancy, most of the attention is focused on how to quickly and efficiently regain your pre-baby body after you've given birth. However, exercise during pregnancy is equally as important and can lead to many benefits: decreased maternal weight gain, shorter labor and reduced risk of postpartum depression. In light of this, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that healthy, pregnant women should engage in 30 minutes or more of exercise per day for most days of the week. However, according to a study in 2012, only 16% of pregnant women meet these guidelines1.

What type of exercise should you do?

One of the main barriers to women exercising during pregnancy is uncertainty about what type of exercise to do. The ideal aerobic exercise during pregnancy should involve large muscle groups and be able to be performed for 30 minutes comfortably. All healthy pregnant women are encouraged to walk daily, but many also enjoy swimming, low-impact dance/aerobics, and using a stationary bike, elliptical, or treadmill. Women who were runners before their pregnancy can usually continue to run during their pregnancy, but occasionally have to make modifications to their routine. Regardless of the choice of activity, it is important that women find a type of exercise they can continue to do throughout the pregnancy and postpartum phase.

Another area of concern is how intensely to exercise. For years women were discouraged from doing anything too "strenuous" for fear of causing themselves or their developing baby harm. However, many studies have demonstrated that moderately intense exercise is safe for both the mother and the baby. One of the easiest ways to gauge the intensity is the "talk test." This means that you can talk, but can't sing due to your increased breathing rate.

Strength training is also considered to be safe for healthy pregnant women. While there is no standardized program, one study showed that strength training during the 2nd and 3rd trimester did not affect the baby's size or overall health. In this study, women performed 8-10 resistance exercises one to two times a week3. Precautions to take during strength training include avoiding holding your breath or performing the Valsalva maneuver throughout pregnancy and limiting lying on your back during the second half of pregnancy4.

Make modifications when necessary

Fear of developing low back or pelvic pain is another common reason women reduce or stop exercising during pregnancy. Low back pain occurs in 50-80% of women during pregnancy, and up to 25% have severe enough pain that they seek medical attention5. The good news is that regular exercise can help prevent pregnancy-related low back pain6. Women should pay attention to how their body feels during and after any exercise and modify if they begin to have pain. If a woman develops pain that is worsening or limiting her ability to exercise or perform activities of daily living, she should be evaluated by her obstetrician. Her obstetrician may then refer her to a physician with expertise in women's health and sports medicine as there are a variety of treatments that can resolve or reduce pain and allow a woman to be as physically active as she wants during her pregnancy.

It's important to note that the information discussed in this article relates to healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies. Prior to starting any type of exercise, women should always check with their obstetrician and discuss any concerns they might have throughout their pregnancy. Also, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists lists these as reasons to stop exercising and call your obstetrician:

  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Extreme shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Calf pain or swelling
  • Pre-term labor
  • Decreased fetal movement
  • Amniotic fluid leakage

1. Evenson KR, Savitz DA, Huston SL. Lesure-time physical activity among pregnant women in the US. PaediatrPerinatEpidemiol 2004; 18:400–407

2. Artal R, O'Tolle M. Guidelines of the American College of Obstetricians andGynecologists for exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Br JSports Med 2003; 37:6–12.

3. Zavorsky GS, Longo LD. Adding strength training, exercise intensity, and caloric expendure to exercise guidelines in pregnancy. ObstetGynecol 2011; 117:1399–1402.

4. Wolfe LA, Davies GAL. Canadian guidelines for exercise in pregnancy.ClinObstetGynecol 2003; 46:488–495.

5. Wergeland E, Strand K (1998) Work pace control and pregnancy health in a population-based sample of employed women in Norway. Scand J Work Environ Health 24:206–212

6. Kluge J, Hall D, Louw Q, et al. Specific exercises to treat pregnancy-related low back pain in a South African population. Int J GynecolObstet 2011; 113:187–191.

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