Pregnancy exercises: How to make exercising during pregnancy safe

It is possible - there are plenty of exercises you can do safely
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  • Pregnancy exercises can keep you happy and healthy throughout all of your trimesters, but you may be wondering what activities you can do safely.

    Pregnancy is such an exciting time, but it can also be a period of uncertainty as you adapt to the responsibility of carrying a baby. A woman’s body goes through such a physical transformation, and it’s important that any exercise done supports these huge changes.

    The NHS advice is that: ‘the more active and fit you are during pregnancy, the easier it will be for you to adapt to your changing shape and pregnancy weight gain. It will also help you to cope with the stages of labour and get back into shape after the birth.’

    But despite these positive benefits, there is still a debate surrounding exercising during pregnancy. In the past, celebrities such as Binky Felstead and Khloe Kardashian have come under fire when posting pregnancy workouts on social media. And there is often conflicting advice on what is and isn’t safe for a mum-to-be and her unborn child.

    “Traditionally women were seen as being weak in their pregnancy. That they should rest in bed and not exert themselves,” says Rosie Stockley, pregnancy and postpartum fitness specialist, and founder of Mamawell.

    “But in a normal ‘uncomplicated’ pregnancy there is no evidence that resting is helpful. Quite the opposite in fact! On days where you have good energy, exercising is so beneficial.” 

    Plus, Rosie says the benefit of staying strong and fit through pregnancy extends through to the postpartum period. Exercising often helps with the birth and speeds up recovery. 

    So, unless you’ve been advised by your GP or midwife not to do any activity, it can be a good idea to do something you enjoy.

    Pregnancy exercises in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd trimester

    “The exercises which are easiest or best will change throughout pregnancy,” explains expert Dr Dawn Harper, partner of Aptaclub’s Active For 2.

    It’s likely that your energy levels and mood will fluctuate during your pregnancy so it’s important be mindful of how you are feeling on any given day.

    MORE: Pregnancy yoga online: the best pre-natal classes to try online

    But on the whole, staying fit and well is really important for both mother and baby in all three trimesters.

    Pregnancy exercises in the first trimester

    When it comes to fitness in the first trimester, it is important to be happy and comfortable with the level of activity that you do.

    “Physically not much has changed on the outside, but there are many hormonal adaptations as the baby begins to grow,” says Rosie. 

    Feeling of tiredness are common in the early weeks of pregnancy. You also may be suffering with morning sickness. Be sure to honour how your body is feeling and rest where needed. 

    “You may not feel like doing your normal fitness routine in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Instead, a brisk walk may be perfect,” says Rosie.  

    Pregnancy exercises in the second trimester

    In the second trimester energy levels often return. It’s a great time to get into a regular fitness routine but from around 13 weeks pregnant onwards, you may need to switch up what you do.  

    “As the baby grows you may well find that swimming and yoga are easier than jogging, for example,” says Dr Dawn.

    “You will probably also find that as your pregnancy progresses you may want to reduce the intensity to your workouts.”

    Pregnancy exercises in the third trimester

    Rosie explains that in the third trimester, the size of the bump may be a limiting factor. This means certain exercise moves will need to be adapted.

    “In addition, many women still feel more fatigued and on some days might not feel like working out. Or you might need to take longer breaks,” she adds.

    “In all trimesters I’d recommend focusing on full body movements. The legs, glutes, pelvis, abdominals and lower back need to be strong to support the growing baby. The upper back and chest need to be strong to support growing breasts and all the carrying that will need to be done post birth.”

    What kinds of exercise are safe during pregnancy?

    Whether you exercise regularly already or are new to working out, there are usually at least a few pregnancy exercises that you can perform and enjoy comfortably.

    Pregnancy it is a good time to look at your overall health and fitness, says Dr Dawn. “Even just a daily walk or incorporating a swim once or twice a week will make a difference. And exercise like yoga is really good for tone and posture.”

    Gentle stretching 

    The body can get tight as pregnancy progresses so stretching is beneficial in addition to cardio and resistance training. 

    “But be aware that the hormone relaxin is present in the joints so don’t overstretch,” says Rosie.

    “This hormone is present through pregnancy. It prepares the body for childbirth by relaxing the ligaments around the joints. It’s particularly useful in the pelvis, but can make other joints less stable.”

    Pelvic floor exercises 

    Strengthening your pelvic floor is also really important throughout pregnancy and beyond. 

    “The pelvic floor muscles will stretch and weaken in childbirth, so knowing how to exercise them will help strengthen them up again,” says Rosie.

    These are important muscles for supporting the internal organs and the pelvis, maintaining posture and ensuring no incontinence issues. 

    What to remember

    Despite many exercises being safe during pregnancy, Dr Dawn says that you should only exercise in a way that works for you. It’s incredibly important to listen to your body. “If it hurts, don’t do it,” she advises.

    “When you are pregnant, if it feels wrong it probably is. So, stop and take advice from your midwife, doctor or if you are a member of a gym or sports group speak to the trainers. You may not need to give up all exercise but you may be advised to alter your schedule or try some different activities,” she says.

    Can I hurt my baby by exercising?

    The NHS say that exercise is not dangerous for your baby. But if you are in doubt at any point during your pregnancy, you should consult your maternity team.

    If you’re exercising in a ‘normal’ manner, then there shouldn’t be any risk of harming your baby, says Rosie. 

    “You’ll want to be careful of any direct impact. So, avoid workouts that could involve you getting hit in the stomach, or falling over – such as falling off a bike,” she warns. “Extreme straining or holding of breath should be avoided, so don’t start lifting really heavy weights during pregnancy.” 

    If you want to join an exercise class that isn’t specifically for pregnancy, check first that your instructor is trained to teach pregnant women.

    Exercises that should be avoided during pregnancy

    The team at Active for 2 advise that these exercises that should be avoided altogether during pregnancy. 

    • Contact sports: Martial arts, football, rugby, squash and hockey, all carry a risk of impact.
    • Activities that risk falling: Such as horse riding, cycling, skiing and gymnastics.
    • Scuba diving: This is inadvisable for pregnant women, because you cannot protect your baby from associated risks such as decompression sickness or gas embolism.
    • Bikram Yoga: Experts agree that pregnant women should avoid raising their core body temperature to this degree.

    You’ll also need to stop lying flat on your back for long periods, especially after 16 weeks, which can impact your ability to perform other exercises, such as crunches. However, most workouts can be adapted so that you are lying on your side, or performing a different move which still has similar benefits. 

    “Crunches and planks are not advised in pregnancy. Instead focus on utilising your core in other full-body movements so that it is functional as well as strong,” says Rosie.

     In general, it’s best to avoid any new types of exercise as you want to be confident with your form and how your body reacts to each movement. 

    “Don’t suddenly start swinging kettlebells around if this is not something you usually do!” says Rosie. “The exception to this rule would be starting a specialist class like antenatal yoga as they will teach beneficial moves for pregnancy and birth.’ 

    Pregnancy exercises – what to be aware of

    Cardio and strength exercises

    Cardio exercise is fine to do when you’re pregnant. Just be mindful of your energy levels and reduce the intensity as necessary. 

    “Always take a break if you feel lightheaded, and make sure you drink plenty of water throughout all workouts,” says Rosie. 

    Having a baby requires you to be strong. If resistance training is already part of your workout then you can keep doing it, with adjustments.  

    “Avoid straining and holding your breath, when using weights. Reduce the weight a little and do increased reps as an alternative,” advises Rosie. “Also be mindful of your technique as you have an altered centre of gravity with the bump growing.” 

    Breathing

    When exercising it is important to keep breathing throughout all movements, and never more so than when pregnant. 

    “All oxygen taken in will also go to the baby so it’s vital to be mindful of not holding your breath,” says Rosie.

    A good indicator is the ‘talk test’ – you should always be able to hold a conversation even if you’re a bit out of breath. You should never be gasping for breath. 

    The benefits of exercising during pregnancy

    There are scientific studies to show that maintaining moderate exercise during pregnancy can be beneficial. And the fitter you are the better you’ll be at coping with the demands of a newborn baby. Anything that gets your heart going is good for you and your baby’s health, as it pumps oxygen, blood and vital nutrients more efficiently around the body and to the womb.

    Some of reasons to prioritise exercise during pregnancy include: 

    • Reducing the risk of gestational diabetes
    • Increasing energy 
    • Better sleep 
    • Keeping blood pressure level 
    • Improving mood
    • Reducing risk of constipation 
    • Reducing risk of back pain

    There’s evidence to suggest that exercise can also help reduce the risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth, plus it can help speed up recovery times post-birth.

    One study also found that keeping fit during pregnancy may help reduce the risk of a child developing high blood pressure later in life.

    Pregnancy exercises: What do the experts say about specific exercises?

    We get the expert’s top tips for the most common kinds of pregnancy exercise:

    Running and walking during pregnancy

    Get the benefits

    Running or walking during pregnancy can help with weight management and may speed up your post-birth recovery time. 

    Running Coach Mel Bound believes that running and brisk walking also brings mental benefits. It can give you the time and headspace to reconnect with your body and process the physical changes that take place during pregnancy.

    How to do it safely 

    A few simple stretches before you go for a walk is a good idea to make sure that you don’t pull any muscles. Walking is a great exercise to do when you are towards the end of your pregnancy when other forms of exercise are difficult. “If there is any pelvic pain in pregnancy, try altering your stride by taking smaller steps,” suggests Rosie.  

    If you’re an experienced runner and are towards the end of your pregnancy, it’s advisable to scale back your routine in the later stages. Choose flatter terrains and aim for an even pace. Avoid high-intensity runs unless you are working with a professional trainer who can advise you on the correct level for your body.

    Yoga during pregnancy

    Get the benefits

    Studies also show that pre-natal yoga may result in less labour pain, a shorter labour and a reduced risk of premature labour. Yet Yoga Coach Clare Maddalena believes it’s the mental benefits that mums feel the most. Pregnancy yoga can give you the time to come to terms with the many changes pregnancy brings, whilst readying yourself for labour.

    How to do it safely 

    Let your yoga teacher know that you’re pregnant or seek advice from a trained instructor on how to adapt yoga moves for your growing bump. Some moves are not advisable, for example certain core exercises. 

    Remember to breathe continuously throughout your workout. In your third trimester, don’t be afraid to revert to gentler or more basic moves that better suit your growing body. A specialist prenatal yoga class will include exercises that are particularly helpful for birth.

    Prenatal Pilates during pregnancy 

    Get the benefits

    Pre-natal pilates is designed especially for pregnancy, so great to do throughout the whole pregnancy. It focusses on exercising your pelvic floor, which can be beneficial during birth and post-natal recovery.  

    How to do it safely 

    Be careful not to stretch too much or over-exert yourself in a class. ‘Be extra careful in the first trimester, or you may want to wait until it has passed,’ says Rosie. 

    Discuss any concerns you have with an instructor who is fully qualified to teach pregnant women, or talk to your doctor or midwife before you start. 

    Swimming during pregnancy

    pregnant women swimming

    Credit: Getty Images

    Get the benefits

    Water-based exercises such as swimming and aqua-natal classes may result in less pregnancy tiredness, a reduced risk of gestational diabetes and less pregnancy weight gain. It could also mean a healthier heart rate and birth weight for your baby.

    The hydrostatic pressure of the water helps to reduce swelling, improve the circulatory and respiratory system and lower blood pressure. And because it’s low-impact, there’s minimal stress on the joints.

    How to do it safely 

    Breast stroke is a good swimming style because this opens and strengthens your chest. This prepares you for when you need to control your breathing in labour. And it opens your hips and encourages flexibility of the pelvis. Remember to keep your back and neck straight. If you have difficulty, use a float under each arm or under your chest. Do as many lengths as you can but if you feel tired, stop. You can generally swim throughout pregnancy for as long as you feel able.

    Strength training during pregnancy

    Get the benefits

    Strength or resistance training may improve endurance in preparation for labour. It can also decrease lower back pain and pelvic pain, and help you manage pregnancy weight gain. This may mean a shorter hospital stay and fewer complications during labour and delivery. Pelvic floor exercises, in particular, can reduce the chance of urinary incontinence during and after pregnancy. Strength Coach Pip Black also believes it helps you train for the physical side of being a mum. Carrying a baby and lifting buggies and car seats can be hard work, after all.

    How to do it safely

    The amount of strength training you’re able to do may depend on your skill level prior to your pregnancy.

    Strength training comes in a number of different forms, from lifting weights to using resistance machines or bands. During the third trimester of your pregnancy, it’s advisable to reduce the intensity and include more moves you can do whilst seated or lying down. Seek advice from a trainer if you’re concerned about overdoing things.

    Cycling during pregnancy

    Get the benefits

    Cycling is a great cardiovascular exercise that improves circulation and muscle strength and flexibility. But it can be hazardous during pregnancy due to the risk of falling.

    How to do it safely

    Avoid ‘off-road’ cycling or opt for a stationary bike. “Spin class is a great option. Be careful of intensity so you’re not too out of breath, and take regular breaks if needed,”  says Rosie.

    As your bump grows, it may be tricky to sit on the bike comfortably or retain your sense of balance – this is an indicator to stop. 

    When should a pregnant woman stop exercising?

    You can keep going with your exercise routine, providing you listen to your body and change aspects of your workout to fit in with your body’s needs and energy levels. If it feels beneficial mentally and physically then you should try and keep moving during each trimester. 

    However, you should always stop any exercise during any stage of your pregnancy if you experience pain, bleeding, dizziness, nausea, an abnormally elevated heart rate, or any other unusual symptoms such as lack of normal foetal movement, and seek immediate medical assistance.