Exercise during pregnancy
By Judith Torel
Congratulations! You are pregnant! And you want to do everything that is best for your baby and yourself during this process. All the experts now agree that it is not only safe, but beneficial to maintain an exercise program while pregnant, but what can and can’t you do?
The benefits of exercising while pregnant are many. An exercise program helps to relieve some of the common problems that go with pregnancy such as unnecessary weight gain, feet and hand swelling, muscle cramps, insomnia, general fatigue and constipation. Exercise helps maintain proper posture while the developing fetus grows and puts unfamiliar pressure on the mother’s skeletal system. Reduction of back aches, pelvic and rectal pressure, and improved circulation have also been associated with exercise during pregnancy. And on an emotional level, exercise helps you to feel good about yourself, which is also good for the baby!
Unless you and your doctor have identified special considerations that may place you in an at-risk pregnancy, you can continue to perform the same exercise program that you were doing pre-pregnancy. As your pregnancy progresses, your body will naturally tell you when you need to start to modify your workouts, but generally that doesn’t start to happen until the second trimester.
There used to be a guideline that stated that pregnant women should not bring their heart rate above 140 beats per minute because that would create internal heat that is dangerous to the pregnancy. This is now considered the most prevalent exercise and pregnancy myth. According to Laura Riley, MD and spokesperson for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, this information was never based on anything to begin with.
The current method for monitoring intensity in exercise while pregnant is to use the RPE, or rate of perceived exertion. Basically, it is a self-analysis tool. At any moment during your exercise, you ask yourself how hard it feels on a scale of 1-10. You want to feel like you are working, but that you can sustain the intensity without hardship. That would be around a 7 on the scale.
The topic of pregnancy and abdominal work is also riddled with confusion among pregnant women. Many are unsure if they should do any abdominal workouts and some also believe that it is dangerous. But is not. Abdominal exercises should be performed throughout pregnancy. They benefit the core and the pelvic floor muscles that help to stabilize the woman’s body during pregnancy and become instrumental in labor and delivery.
Many abdominal exercises can be done in a seated and standing position. This allows the woman to continue to strengthen the abdominals even after the first trimester, while performing these exercises while lying on her back is not recommended. Doing standing pelvic tilts, Kegels which are pelvic floor contractions (much like you would do if you were trying to stop the flow of urine) and abdominal crunches, semi-reclined on an exercise ball are all great options for pregnant women past the first trimester.
Another common question is should you run while pregnant. Here again, if you have been a runner you can continue to run into your pregnancy. Paula Radcliff trained throughout her pregnancy and then won the New York City marathon within six months of her delivery last year! That said, it does start to feel different as you continue to run into your advancing pregnancy, so modify as your body dictates. You may find that you start out running, but are power-walking by the end. As long as you are staying mindful of how you are feeling and not trying to maintain the same pacing of your pre-pregnancy workouts, all should be well.
What if you were not exercising pre-pregnancy? Does this mean that you have to wait until after the baby to start an exercise program? No. Both walking and swimming are appropriate to begin while pregnant. You can start with 10 minutes per day and advance each week by five minutes until you reach 60 minutes. You don’t want to become “super exerciser” while pregnant, but you will help reduce the fatigue and get good night’s sleep if you add activity to your daily life, even if you start once you become pregnant.
Exercises to avoid
There are some exercises that should be avoided while pregnant. Contact sports like soccer and balance exercises like riding an outside bike or skiing are risky to perform while pregnant. By the fourth month, a woman’s balance is challenged by the changing of the center of gravity of her body, so any exercise that requires balance will become more challenging. Falling off a bike could significantly harm a developing fetus and the pros and cons of performing these types of exercises should be given great consideration.
Also, when pregnant, a woman’s body produces more relaxin, a hormone that lubricates joints in order to prepare for labor. For this reason, pregnant women should modify flexibility exercises and keep within pre-pregnancy range of motion. Even though you will be able to go deeper into stretches due to the hormonal changes, this can lead to injuries and should be avoided at this time. For the same reason, deep lunges, squats, pressing weights above your head and all similar strengthening exercises need to be monitored in order to avoid joint injuries.
Some general guidelines apply to pregnancy and exercise that are the same as non-pregnancy exercise:
Always do an adequate warm-up before an exercise session. A series of small movements involving the neck, shoulders, spine, hips and knees will get the joints ready for more intense work.
Always stretch after an exercise session, although when pregnant avoid over-stretching.
Avoid exercise in intense heat and always have some form of hydration available, preferably water in a non-plastic stainless steel or glass container (there is question as to whether components of plastic leak into the liquid and potentially harm the fetus and the mother).
If you experience increased uterine contractions, vaginal bleeding, amniotic fluid leakage, dizziness, shortness of breath, palpatations, general swelling or numbness, persistent nausea or vomiting, stop exercising and contact your doctor.
There are a growing number of pregnant women who are so concerned about keeping their figures that a new syndrome called “pregorexia” is emerging. This label applies to women who try NOT to gain the suggested 25-35 pounds during pregnancy. This is currently estimated to affect about 5% of pregnant women, but with the media coverage of the post-pregnancy physiques of celebrities these days, there is concern that this number may grow.
Too little weight gain during pregnancy can be very damaging to both mother and baby and can lead to premature births and low birth weights. Also associated with too low weight gain are: anemia, ADHD, rickets, heart disease, depression, poor growth and cognitive behavior in the baby.
Although exercise during pregnancy has many benefits, it should not be used as a method of weight loss while pregnant.
Judy Torel is a USAT coach, personal trainer, nutrition consultant and psychotherapist. She conducts online services through her website www.judytorel.com. Her office is located in Planet Fitness, Loudonville. She is also a competing triathlete who is currently training for Ironman, Florida.