Okay, first things first, I’m a guy. Let me add a little more info, I’m a father with two young kids and someone who makes a living teaching exercise science so me writing about exercising during pregnancy comes from the point of view of having watched my wife go through it two times and having done the research to teach others how pregnancy changes a woman’s response to exercise.
One of the most important things to recognize about exercise is that it is physical stress applied to the body. The specific type of stress and how often it is applied can determine the specific adaptations the body makes. Anytime there is a pre-existing or additional stressor it will change the body’s response to exercise. This is important to know because if you are going through a stressful period of life exercise can help, but only in a limited amount, doing too much could actually be harmful. Likewise if you have a chronic disease, like diabetes, heart disease or arthritis, you can exercise BUT you will have to monitor and adjust the duration and intensity of your workouts so they help improve your health and not make the disease worse. Pregnancy is NOT a disease BUT it DOES change how a woman’s body responds to exercise so it is important to know how so you can adjust your workouts accordingly.
Okay, that’s out of the way; now back to exercising during pregnancy. Once upon a time doctors told women to not do anything strenuous during their pregnancy (so I guess moms who already had a few young kids were supposed to let their significant others do all the work). Then it became, “you can exercise, but only at a low intensity.” Nowadays most doctors are telling female clients: keep doing what you normally do, but adjust if you feel tired.
Here’s the thing: we know that a woman’s body changes during pregnancy and that the physiology will function differently but there is a scarcity of specific research on how hard or how long to exercise during pregnancy because: 1) no researcher wants to risk injuring a pregnant woman and 2) it’s only a limited time frame to collect data. This means that we have ideas about how a woman’s body adjusts to exercise during pregnancy but no definitive standards for how hard, how long or what type of exercise.
If you’re female, enjoy working out and planning on getting pregnant here are a few things you should know about the benefits of exercise during pregnancy along with a few things to pay attention to as your pregnancy progresses.
This information comes from the current scientific literature, my 18 years of experience of working with pregnant woman as private clients and in group classes, going through it two times with my wife and from my conversation with Aimee Nicotera, a fitness professional who continued to teach, train and compete during her pregnancy. In my All About Fitness podcast we discuss Aimee’s pregnancy and how she has adjusted her workouts over the development of her baby. Two important things to note: Aimee is a little more mature (ok, older) than the average new mother but that didn’t affect her and she went into labor and gave birth within hours of taping the podcast so I was lucky to catch her at the exact end of her pregnancy; so it’s worth a listen if you’re looking for some good, practical advice from a fitness expert with a master’s in health education.
Here are benefits of exercising during your pregnancy. Okay, yes there are numerous scientificky benefits that you can read about in the link in #1, I’m going to highlight some of the other benefits from personal experience:
- You can manage healthy weight gain. As someone who has worked in health clubs for almost 2 decades I know first-hand that many women deal with body image issues and unfortunately there exists a fear about pregnancy causing excessive weight gain. According to the guidelines established by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) it is perfectly normal to gain 25-30 pounds during pregnancy. Exercise can help you maintain a healthy bodyweight throughout the development of your growing baby. I’ve known a few women who over-trained during pregnancies and ended up on bed rest to save their babies. If you are pregnant it is NOT the time to focus on body weight.
- Helps you maintain your normal social life. One thing that can be a challenge during pregnancy is making time to see your friends, but if you continue to go to the gym you are combining exercise time with social time making it a win-win. As my wife taught her group fitness classes during her pregnancies she connected with other women who were pregnant as well. They shared their experiences during pregnancies and because our kids were born at the same time we have gone through the thrills and adventures of having young kids together.
- Exercise is great stress release. There are so many things to deal with while pregnant: doctors visits, making daycare or childcare arrangements, buying all sorts of crap you never knew you needed (hint: buy your crib and carseats new, everything else you can get second hand – including the breast pump (just the pump unit, you will need to buy new attachments) and, oh yeah, you still have to work. Going to the gym and getting lost in your favorite playlist, podcast or just going to your favorite class is a great way to get much needed ‘you’ time.
- You get to show off your superpower. As my wife and Aimme can attest to, when teaching group fitness while pregnant people were amazed that they could continue kicking their butts “in her condition.” I’ve seen women wear the t-shirt: “I make humans, what’s your superpower?” As a guy I know I could never hack having something grow in my body and giving birth, you have a superpower; working out while you’re pregnant allows you to flaunt it.
The bottom line is that if you are active, you can continue your favorite activities over the course of your pregnancy. That said, here are a few things you should know about how to adjust your exercise routine (and life) during your pregnancy:
- Avoid exercising in excessive heat. Your fetus can not control it’s body temperature, if it is hot for you, it is really hot for your baby. If you live somewhere that gets hot in summer, exercise indoors or early morning to avoid heat. Take yoga, but skip hot yoga – your fetus will not be able to cool itself, it’s not worth the risk.
- Stay hydrated. Your blood and muscle is approximately 70% water, if your blood volume goes down, it can reduce blood flow to your fetus. Be careful of hyponatremia (too much water) but make sure to drink plenty of water before, during and after your workouts to ensure proper hydration.
- You will feel tired in the first trimester; as your fetus is growing it will take 3 or 4 months for your body to produce the extra blood necessary to support it. This is why you can be so tired, but the good news is that once your body starts producing extra blood and oxygen-carrying hemoglobin you will feel the extra boost of energy during the second trimester – that’s part of your superpower, use it!
- You can stay active with your normal fitness routine but your pregnancy is NOT the time to start a different program. One exception is that if you’re NOT currently a yogi, taking a specific pre-natal yoga class may be a good idea for some flexibility training to relieve discomfort. Wait until after you’ve been cleared to return to exercise to start a new class or make radical alterations to your workout routine.
- Listen to your body. You may not feel it but your body will be burning extra energy to support the life of your fetus (#superpower) this is why you will be hungrier during your pregnancy, you need extra calories to support the extra life. If you feel tired do NOT try to push through at the gym, take a nap – that is the much healthier option. Respect what your body is telling you, this is not the time to be tough and push through fatigue. Nap.
- Sleep. Sleep often. Sleep long. Sleep. And, oh yeah, Sleep. That is what I tell friends getting ready for their first. Your little bundle of joy is awesome but will wake every few hours for feeding (and changing) during his or her first few months on our planet. While you’re pregnant take any and every opportunity to stock up on sleep. You. Will. Not. Regret. It.
- Go to the movies. Unless you have a lot of family in the area that you trust with a newborn you will not want to pay a stranger a lot of money to watch your kid for the first few months. Hitting the movies is something you can do while pregnant, take advantage of it. That said skip Netflix; save the binge-watching for when you’re home during maternity leave or up in the middle of the night for the 4am feeding – there’s nothing worse than trying to hold a baby and bottle while scrolling the menu for something to watch, have your queue set up and ready to go.
- Enjoy the experience. You will only be pregnant once or twice (or multiple times) in your life; you have the rest of your life to sweat, lift and get your fitness-junkie on. Enjoy being pregnant, you will not regret it.
- I’m a fitness guy writing a blog, yes I have a master’s degree and years of practical experience but if you have any specific health-related questions my only exercise advice is to RUN to your Dr. or nurse and ask for their professional input. You may not like the advice (like rest) but LISTEN TO IT, they know a lot more than anything you will read on the intertubes!!!!!!
There you have it, my advice on why you should continue to workout during your pregnancy and some things to pay attention to. Keep in mind that in years past women would work the fields throughout their pregnancy and squat down to deliver and get back to work in pretty short order. The human body is incredibly resilient and communicative; it can endure a lot but you must listen to it. When you hear: “rest,” do it. When you’re feeling awesome – get up and move! If you’re hesitant about getting pregnant because you’re fearful of how it will change your body; don’t be. I’ve seen and worked (and lived) with women who return to their pre-kid birth weight and shape. You have a superpower, it’d be a shame not to use it.