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What to Exercise When You're Expecting: Fitness Tips for Mothers-to-Be

May 05, 2021
By: Celeste Turner

Women often worry that exercise can be harmful during pregnancy, but obstetricians agree that it can work wonders for a mother and her baby. During pregnancy, exercise can help mothers stay in shape, as well as prepare for labor and delivery.

"The benefits of exercising in each trimester of pregnancy is significant," Stephen Champlin, MD, who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology at the East Jefferson Women's Center in Metairie, said. "Exercise throughout pregnancy tends to speed up the labor process and slightly lowers the risk of cesarean section deliveries. Exercise throughout pregnancy helps regulate insulin levels and lessened or lowers the effects of diabetes."

Expecting mothers can minimize the common symptoms of pregnancy, like bloating, swelling, back aches, and leg pain, with the recommended 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise almost every day.

"I have always been someone who needs to exercise to sleep well and feel my best, so I typically start out my pregnancies trying to exercise four to five days a week,'' Elizabeth C. Perez, D.D.S., who is currently more than 23 weeks pregnant, said. "However, I get very sick for the first 18 weeks of my pregnancies, so it is usually hard to do anything rigorous like a HIIT workout. I have found that even the slightest bit of exercise helps to quell the nausea in the beginning. When I felt most sick, a 15-minute walk could help reset me."

Perez, a native of New Orleans, is awaiting the arrival of her third child. She and her husband, Paul, jointly own a dental practice in New Orleans while raising their two boys, ages 3 and 5.

"I try to do two strength training days, two cardio days, and one HIIT day a week," Perez said. "Although most of these workouts are only 20 minutes, I feel so much better after I am done. I have worked out through all my three pregnancies."

Before beginning an exercise program, it is important to check with your healthcare provider. Depending on your fitness level, you should be aware of your limitations and pace yourself.

According to Dr. Champlin, certain exercises should be avoided at the 20-week mark during pregnancy. "Before 20 weeks, patients are free to do sit ups, crunches, and other ab workouts without restraint," Dr. Champlin said. "However, after 20 weeks, we asked patients not to do any abdominal exercises, which would require more than a 30-degree bend at the waist."

Dr. Champlin also indicated that "most exercises are safe as long as patients have the proper form and do not attempt to do any exercises with a heavy strain on their body while lifting."

"Running and jogging are safe throughout pregnancy," Dr. Champlin said. "However, we ask patients not to do any exercise which would take the heart rate above 160 bpm for longer than 20 minutes."

While doing cardiovascular exercise, Perez admitted that breathing can be difficult during pregnancy. "The one thing that always catches me off guard is how labored my breathing gets during the course of my pregnancy. Your diaphragm and lungs do not have the room to expand like they normally do. I have to remind myself that this does not mean I am out of breath because I am not fit, but because my body is going through amazing physiological changes," Perez stated.

Consider these guidelines:

Mother-to-be redefine "baby weight" by strength training during pregnancy. [Adobe stock]

If you have not exercised in a while, start with as little as 10 minutes of physical activity, and then try to build up to 30 minutes. Suggested physical activities like walking, swimming, low-impact aerobics, strength training, and cycling are acceptable as moderate aerobic and strength conditioning with minimal stress on joints.

Another key point to remember is that intense exercise increases oxygen and blood flow to the muscles and away from the uterus. While you are exercising, you should be able to carry on a normal conversation. If it is tough to talk while you're working out, you're pushing yourself beyond your limits.

Always warm up, stretch, and cool down before and after your workout.

Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids to avoid overheating when you are working out.

After the first trimester, avoid any exercises that force you to lie on your back.

Do not participate in these activities, which can pose high risk for pregnant women:

Scuba diving, which could put your baby at risk of decompression sickness.

Contact sports like hockey, basketball, soccer, and volleyball.

Sports that may involve falling like downhill skiing, gymnastics, and horseback riding.

Other sports, which may put you at risk to hit the water with a great amount of force, like water skiing, diving, and surfing.

Activities that may cause you to overheat like hot yoga and hot Pilates.

Another significant consideration noted by Dr. Champlin for mothers-to-be is that a woman's center of balance does change throughout the pregnancy. He recommended that any exercise or strength training should be done slow and deliberate with attention to balance, particularly if the person is standing.


Expecting mothers can enjoy the benefits of a modified prenatal yoga or prenatal Pilates that accommodate a pregnant woman's shifting balance. These classes can reduce stress, improve flexibility, and encourage stretching and focused breathing. Again, be mindful to avoid poses that require you to be still or lie on your back for long periods.

For Perez, the strength training sessions with her personal trainer and the pre-natal yoga classes help to relieve her lower back pain and maintain her weight. "I have had a personal trainer for the past 11 years that I go to for one hour one time a week. I try to keep my weight gain to 25-35 pounds a pregnancy. I must say that with each child, it does get harder to maintain the weight," Perez admitted. "And you do lose a lot of core strength, which can lead to lower back pain and discomfort. I find that prenatal yoga really helps when I am feeling a loss of strength or balance."

So, if you are an experienced runner, avid cyclist, or workout fanatic, you may be able to keep doing these activities during pregnancy. Listen to your body and watch for the following warning signs when you exercise. If you have any of these, stop and call your obstetrician:

Bleeding

Feeling dizzy or fainting

Shortness of breath before starting exercise

Chest pain

Headache

Muscle weakness

Calf pain or swelling

Regular, painful contractions


With these fitness tips in mind, you and your baby can expect to reap the benefits of exercise for years to come.

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