How to Enjoy an Active Pregnancy and Have a Safe Postnatal Recovery
Call me a killjoy, as I know this option sounds GREAT to many of you, especially anyone in their first trimester who isn’t feeling too good, but staying sedentary and eating crap actually wouldn’t do us much good, and if you have a quick scan down the list I’ve put together below, you can clearly see the benefits of exercising whilst pregnant do in fact far outweigh that warm, fuzzy self-indulgent ‘buzz’ you get from said coach-potato-ness…
The benefits of exercising during pregnancy:
- Exercise affects your body’s levels of hormones, neurochemicals, and endorphins – which can help to ward off, or minimise the effect of the dread pregnancy blues…
- Exercise may also help alleviate common early pregnancy symptoms such as nausea, headaches and fatigue
- Regular exercise, combined with a healthy, nutritious diet may help minimise excessive prenatal weight gain
- A well designed exercise programme will help you to maintain good posture and alignment – which will not only make your day to day life more comfortable, but can also help the baby sit in a better position, allowing for an easier labour and delivery experience (yes please!)
- Aerobic exercise helps to boost circulation, which in turn will reduce the chances of you suffering from niggling leg cramps, varicous veins and swelling of the feet and ankles (this can prove troublesome in the last trimester especially…)
- Regular exercise reduces the chances of you suffering from constipation or hemorrhoids
- Exercise is known to improve sleep patterns
- Exercise may reduce the chances of you developing gestational diabetes or hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Exercise may reduce the risk of you giving birth to a baby with a high birth weight, therefore reducing the need for a caesarean
- Women who do strength conditioning exercise during pregnancy tend to have a shorter labour time and fewer delivery complications.
- Regular exercise may help improve or shorten your recovery time after labour
How much exercise should I be doing?
Admittedly, your enthusiasm for exercise may fluctuate throughout your pregnancy depending on how your body is feeling at the time, but if you’re looking for a rough guideline to follow, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommend pregnant women aim for 30 minutes of moderate intensity recreational exercise 4-7 times a week.
If you enjoyed exercising regularly before pregnancy, you should be fine to continue with slightly higher intensity exercise programmes such as running and aerobics, but you should still mention this, or discuss with your doctor or midwife anyway to ensure they are happy for you to do so.
And even if you HATED exercise before pregnancy, or just haven’t done much in the last year or so, don’t believe the myth that you shouldn’t start now. Early pregnancy is the perfect time to get started with an exercise programme, however you do need to start slowly and gradually, and you should definitely consult your doctor or midwife before you do so. Aim for no more than fifteen minutes of continuous exercise three times a week to start with.
What should I be looking to achieve through my pregnancy workouts?
Admittedly any sort of recreational exercise, such as walking or swimming is great, but I really recommend women approach exercise during their pregnancy with a well thought out plan if they can, rather than hitting the gym and just getting on to whatever machine happens to be free.
Your plan should incorporate a mix of aerobic and strength training and should aim to develop or maintain:
- Overall strength and lean muscle mass
- Proper posture and alignment (both of which will be affected by your growing uterus and boobs..!)
- Good level of aerobic fitness (you’ll need this for labour)
- Core strength
- Pelvic floor strength and tone
What to avoid when exercising during pregnancy:
Your overall body temperature always increases during exercise, but it does more so during pregnancy. Getting too hot (i.e. allowing your body temperature to rise above 39.2°C) can be dangerous, especially in the first 12 weeks, however it’s unlikely many of us will be carrying around a thermometer when we work out, so instead you just need to be in tune with how you feel during a workout. It is also recommended that you drink lots of water before and during exercise avoid exercising in the midday sun or stuffy, non-air conditioned gyms during summer months avoid exercising in hot or humid climates until you have acclimatized
Avoid using saunas or steam rooms, or overly hot baths after your workouts (or at all, especially during the first twelve weeks!)
In years gone by, prenatal personal trainers and fitness instructors were told to keep their clients’ heartrates under 140bpm. However, heartrates are totally subjective, and depend on each individual’s level of fitness and lifestyle. Nowadays, we use the ‘talk test’ as a better measure of safety. To check whether you’re working out at a safe level of intensity, see if you are able to maintain a conversation. If you’re getting too breathless, you need to stop for a rest, or slow down at least.
Sustaining an injury
During pregnancy you may notice that you’re a lot more flexible than you used to be; elbows, wrists, fingers and knees may suddenly seem more ‘supple’, and you’d be right! During pregnancy your body produces a hormone called relaxin, whose job it is to ‘loosen’ the ligaments that normally support your joints, in preparation for birth. However, the flip side of this is that you are much more prone to injury as your joints are considerably more unstable. Always warm up and cool down properly before and after every workout, and avoid sudden changes of direction, if you are doing any sort of aerobic exercise. As your pregnancy progresses, your pelvis in particular may become painful due to its instability. Book an appointment with a chiropractor if you notice any sort of pain around your coccyx, hips or pubic bone and they may recommend wearing a pelvic support belt during your workouts from then onwards.
Letting blood sugar levels drop too low
Blood glucose is a source of energy for both you and the baby – and exercising for too long a time can affect this. Aim to have some carbohydrate-rich food 1-2 hours before exercising, and unless you are seasoned or competitive athlete who is familiar with long distance or endurance exercise, you shouldn’t be exercising for more than 45 minutes at a time.
As your bump grows, the connective tissue between your abdominal muscles will be stretched – and it can be difficult for you to manage what is called intra-abdominal pressure during exercises like crunches, or explosive exercises like kettlebell swings. However, you do still need to maintain your core strength to a certain degree, so there are various ‘crunchless’ core activation exercises that you can build into your workouts to maintain this. I’ll do a separate post on some suitable exercises for you to try throughout your pregnancy, but a well-qualified pre and postnatal personal trainer or fitness instructor should be able to guide you in the right direction.
REMEMBER: As mentioned above, please make sure you consult your doctor or midwife before starting or continuing with any sort of exercise programme. If you experience ANY unusual symptoms (especially dizziness, pain or bleeding) during your workout, stop and make sure you consult your healthcare professional as soon as you’re able to.