At every stage of life, exercise is as important as nutrition for maintaining a healthy body and mind. Pregnancy is no different. In fact, the amount of energy that goes into growing and delivering a baby may well be the hardest physical work a mother ever does. Exercise under a health care provider’s guidance is an important part of preparing for, enduring and recovering from pregnancy.
The American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) states that aerobic and strength-conditioning activities have minimal risks for women with uncomplicated pregnancies and have been shown to benefit most women before, during and after pregnancy.
“Regular physical activity during pregnancy improves or maintains physical fitness, helps with weight management, reduces the risk of gestational diabetes in obese women and enhances psychologic well-being,” ACOG notes in its Committee Opinion Number 650.
ACOG emphasizes that every woman who is pregnant or trying to become pregnant should consult with their health care provider before beginning or continuing an exercise program. A thorough clinical evaluation and ongoing monitoring of your baby’s development and the significant changes your body undergoes during pregnancy is vital to ensuring that exercise results in benefits instead of harm.
Christopher Sullivan, M.D., is an obstetrician-gynecologist at Carilion Clinic and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. He tells his patients that the ideal time to begin a fitness regimen is before conception occurs. This includes quitting smoking and losing weight.
“Pregnancy is like participating in an endurance event,” he said. “Optimizing your health before you begin means you already have healthy habits in place that are sustainable throughout the pregnancy.”
Counseling patients about their overall fitness is one of the most rewarding aspects of Dr. Sullivan’s practice because mothers who are committed to physical fitness tend to raise children who are fit as well. Virginia ranks highest in the country for obesity in children ages 2 to 5.
For women who want to begin exercising after they become pregnant, Dr. Sullivan recommends they begin by walking and increase their intensity and the distance they travel.
“We are fortunate to live in a beautiful environment in which to be out and about,” he said, recommending the Roanoke Valley Greenways as an ideal location to walk.
Working with their provider, they can then begin a dedicated aerobic exercise regimen that strengthens their cardiovascular endurance.
Women who believe or have been told that their pregnancy is “high risk” should develop any exercise program in close consultation with their provider. The same is true for women with chronic heart or lung conditions. Your provider will advise you based on your physical condition and lifestyle habits that may affect your pregnancy and the physical activities that are safe for you and your developing fetus.
Do’s and Don’ts
Examples of physical activities that may be safe under an obstetric care provider’s supervision during uncomplicated pregnancies include:
- Stationary cycling
- Low-impact aerobics
- Modified yoga and Pilates
- Running and racquet sports (for women who did so before pregnancy)
- Strength training
ACOG recommends avoiding these activities during pregnancy:
- Contact sports, including soccer and basketball
- Activities with a high risk of falling, such as skiing, mountain biking and horseback riding as well as sky diving
- SCUBA diving
- Hot yoga or hot Pilates
Dr. Sullivan emphasizes that pregnant patients who exercise should stay well-hydrated and avoid over-heating (hyperthermia). He also recommends against strenuous or heavy weightlifting.
“Anaerobic exercise can be much more difficult and isn't really ideal due to normal lung changes in pregnancy,” he said. “Moderate aerobic exercise—tailored to the each patient’s fitness level—is preferable.”
The amount of exercise you are able to do during pregnancy will be determined by your overall health and how active you were before you got pregnant. No matter your condition, stop exercising immediately and contact your provider if you experience any of the following:
- Vaginal bleeding
- Regular painful contractions
- Amniotic fluid leakage
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Muscle weakness affecting balance
- Calf pain or swelling
Dr. Sullivan offers similar advice to his patients after they have delivered their babies as before: Exercise as much as your body allows you to, in consultation with your provider. For mothers who deliver via cesarean section, the typical recommendation is to wait six weeks before engaging in vigorous exercise.
“If you have achieved a sustainably healthy lifestyle, those same efforts and that same discipline will continue after delivery,” he said.
The challenge after delivery is finding the time and energy to exercise.
“New mothers are pulled in multiple directions and making time for themselves is difficult,” said Dr. Sullivan. “Having support from her family, friends and especially partners for that is important.”