If you’re reading this, chances are you’re expecting — and you want to do everything you can to keep yourself and your soon-to-be baby healthy during your pregnancy. Good nutrition is a no-brainer, but the topic of fitness during pregnancy is a little more complicated. Is there such a thing as too much prenatal exercise? Too little?
These days, debates rage on across the internet (big shocker there) about images of pregnant women simply working out. Even different countries can’t seem to agree on what pregnant women should be doing to stay healthy. The American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine studied the exercise guidelines of nine countries and found some very interesting discrepancies in advice. Japan recommends pregnant women exercise only between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. (hey, Japan, that’s the hottest time of the day — what gives?). Norway, on the other hand, wants pregnant women to understand the importance of wearing light clothing. (No, we’re not sure whether they’re referring to weight or color either. To be safe, exercise in pastel lingerie when traveling in Scandinavia?)
So, let’s cut through the confusion about working out during pregnancy, shall we? We’ve spoken with experts to determine the latest guidelines and recommendations for which (and how much) prenatal exercises are best — and which you’ll definitely want to avoid.
First, the big boss of all things pregnancy-related: the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. ACOG released its latest pregnancy fitness recommendations in July 2017, and we’ll be keeping an eye on the site to be sure we keep up with any updates.
In a hugely helpful, packed-like-a-third-trimester-belly FAQ, ACOG ticked off all the ways regular exercise benefits Mama and Baby (in case you need additional motivation to wriggle your growing body into spandex workout gear).
- Reduces back pain
- Eases constipation (we’ve been there)
- May decrease your risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and C-sections
- Promotes healthy weight gain
- Improves your overall general fitness and cardiovascular strength
- Helps you to lose “baby weight” after birth
Damn it. OK, fine. We’ll get off the couch. But the dog has to move too.
As for just how much exercise is optimal during pregnancy, ACOG deferred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (yes, we know, pregnancy is not a disease, but we’re rolling with it). The CDC’s recommendation won’t thrill those puking their guts out every morning and having trouble fitting their feet into their sneakers, but here it is: Pregnant women should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week. Don’t shoot us; we’re just the messengers.
And if you’re asking what “moderate intensity” means, simply managing to get your socks and shoes on over your pregnant toes and ankles doesn’t count. “Moderate intensity” means your heart rate’s up and there is sweat involved. “You can talk normally, but you cannot sing,” writes ACOG. So no musical theater numbers necessary, but you do need to break a sweat. Sorry. Examples ACOG gives include “brisk walking” and “general gardening,” such as raking or digging. If you’re surprised that gardening was mentioned before, say, yoga, maybe you’ve never sowed nine rows of garlic, eh?
For the math-challenged, the CDC recommends dividing that scary-looking 150 minutes of exercise into five 30-minute workouts in a week. And if exercise is a brave new world for you, start slowly with as little as five minutes a day until you hit that magic 150 a week and can do 30 minutes of uninterrupted exercise a day.
So, which exercises get the thumbs-up from ACOG for pregnancy?
- Walking: “Brisk walking gives a total-body workout and is easy on the joints and muscles.”
- Swimming and water workouts: “Water workouts use many of the body’s muscles. The water supports your weight so you avoid injury and muscle strain. If you find brisk walking difficult because of low back pain, water exercise is a good way to stay active.”
- Stationary bicycling: “Because your growing belly can affect your balance and make you more prone to falls, riding a standard bicycle during pregnancy can be risky. Cycling on a stationary bike is a better choice.”
- Modified yoga and modified Pilates: “Yoga reduces stress, improves flexibility, and encourages stretching and focused breathing. There are even prenatal yoga and Pilates classes designed for pregnant women. These classes often teach modified poses that accommodate a pregnant woman’s shifting balance. You also should avoid poses that require you to be still or lie on your back for long periods.”
It’s worth noting that some exercises aren’t quite a yes and aren’t quite a no, either. Consider any of the following to be maybes and worth a discussion with your doctor or midwife.
- Running (if you’re already experienced)
- Jogging (same deal)
- Racquetball, squash or tennis
And then there are the big, definite no-way, don’t-even-think-about-them exercises, courtesy of ACOG:
- Contact sports and sports that put you at risk of getting hit in the abdomen, including ice hockey, boxing, soccer and basketball
- Activities that may result in a fall, such as downhill snow skiing, waterskiing, surfing, off-road cycling, gymnastics and horseback riding
- Hot yoga or hot Pilates, which may cause you to become overheated
- Scuba diving
- Activities performed above 6,000 feet (if you do not already live at a high altitude)
So, basically, nix the mixed martial arts and bungee jumping for a while. You must chill.
SheKnows also spoke with several experts in the fields of prenatal, postnatal and fitness health to get their takes on the pregnancy workout question. (Basically, these are people who care about your pelvic floor almost as much as you do.) Not unexpectedly, they echoed many of the ACOG’s suggestions as well as offering their own favorite nuggets of pregnancy exercise wisdom.
“I think yoga is great. Staying fit, strong and flexible is so important in pregnancy,” says Kristi L. Smith, a former obstetrics nurse in Duluth, Minnesota. “‘No pain, no gain’ has never been very wise to me. If it hurts, don’t do it! Common sense and ‘do no harm’ is best.”
Smith’s caveat, however, is that “bed rest or lying around too much is the worst.” She adds that “in nursing school, we called it ‘the hazards of bed rest,’ [as] our bodies decondition really fast. I’ve cared for many women in their labors, and they need endurance for delivery, recovery and having energy to turn calories into milk production.”
Georgia OB-GYN Dr. Allan Joseph says he encourages patients “to exercise at least three hours a week — they can break it up in 15-minute walks twice daily or do three one-hour sessions. The goal is to do what they can,” Joseph said. “Great exercises in pregnancy include walking, stationary biking, swimming and yoga. The last two are particularly good for the last two trimesters. The pool just feels great and negates weight concerns, and yoga is super for balance, breathing and flexibility.”
Joseph adds that keeping up fitness in all three trimesters is so important. “The goal of exercising in pregnancy is to help boost energy, improve sleep, relieve stress, improve flexibility, increase cardiorespiratory fitness [and] decrease risks for diabetes, excessive weight gain and hypertensive disease. Plus it helps with preparing one for the rigors of labor. One is not trying to get ripped abs,” he joked. Got it. File “ripped abs” away with the mixed martial arts and bungee jumping.
Joseph also encourages his patients to enjoy the benefits of exercise but to steer clear of any excessive activities. Contact sports, he says, are one thing to avoid as well as anything that leaves you feeling overheated or short of breath. (No rugby, pregnant friends.) Joseph adds that women with high-risk pregnancies of any kind should consult their OB-GYNs before starting any fitness regimen.
Joseph’s favorite pregnancy-fitness wisdom? “Stay well hydrated before, during and after activities,” he urges. “Consider wearing a good sports bra and/or a belly-support band to help reduce discomfort. Listen to your body, and stop if you’re too winded or uncomfortable.”
Paula Nixon, a certified Pilates instructor in Chicago, echoes Joseph and Smith’s advice of heeding your body’s wishes — unless, that is, your body is only wishing for pepperoni pizza with extra cheese. (We feel you. We really do.)
“Pregnancy is a time to modify or adapt your exercise program. Be gentle on yourself,” Nixon says. “Always listen to your body. Whether you’re working on strength, flexibility, balance or relaxation, let your body be your guide.”
Specifically, Nixon recommends low-impact exercise for pregnant women. “Prenatal yoga, gentle stretching, pelvic-floor conditioning and walking are all good during pregnancy,” she says. “[And] be sure to get your midwife or doctor’s consent before beginning any exercise program.”
So, there you have it. Keep moving. Do what feels good. Get sweaty (sex is on the yes list, FYI). Drink plenty of water. Skip the tackle football and skydiving. And stay in touch with your doctor or midwife with any concerns. Your baby may not ever express their gratitude for all this, but your pelvic floor just might.