Pregnant woman keeping fit

Exercise during pregnancy has long been a taboo subject. Many believe that the gym should be a no-bump zone, with some accusing expectant mothers of risking the health of their unborn baby by staying active while expecting. But is exercise really damaging to pregnant women and their babies?

“Exercise is one of the most important and beneficial things you can do for yourself and your baby during pregnancy,” said qualified gym instructor and new mum Amy Parr. “Women who exercise during their pregnancy tend to have easier, shorter labours and reduced complications and medical intervention.

“Research also shows that an active pregnancy can lead to happier, healthier babies and can have a positive impact on your post-birth recovery.”

Sounds good, huh? But which exercises are best and which are a definite no-go? We caught up with Amy to find out more about staying active during pregnancy, the benefits and her recommendations for mums-to-be.

Can you exercise while pregnant?

“Pregnant women are often encouraged by well-meaning, yet misinformed, loved ones to take it easy, put their feet up and to be more careful during pregnancy. Then there’s the funny looks you may endure when venturing into a gym with your bump in tow. But exercise is actually not at all harmful to the baby or to mother! There is actually no better time in your life to adopt a healthy, active lifestyle.

Guidance from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists states that ‘all women should be encouraged to participate in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle during their pregnancy’. It also states that ‘reasonable goals of aerobic conditioning in pregnancy should be to maintain a good fitness level throughout pregnancy without trying to reach peak fitness level or train for athletic performance’.

What are the best pregnancy exercises?

Generally speaking, you should be able to continue training as you have done previously. As you progress through the stages of pregnancy, you can adapt this accordingly. In addition, previously sedentary women who are healthy and experiencing a normal pregnancy are also advised to become more active.

Here are a few things mothers-to-be should consider when exercising:

- It sounds cliché, but you MUST listen to your body and stop immediately if anything feels uncomfortable during exercise
- It’s really important to warm up properly and prepare the body, the joints and the heart for exercise
- Drink PLENTY of fluid
- Monitoring exercise intensity should be adapted as using heart rate is not a reliable measure. Heart rate typically increases by roughly 15-20bpm during pregnancy therefore a better measure of intensity would be a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale, i.e. a scale of 1-10 or the “talk test”
- Adapt exercise to the changes to your centre of gravity and also the changes to your body shape. For example, a squat during later pregnancy may adapt to a sumo squat (a wide leg stance) in order to accommodate the growing bump
- For resistance training, lower your weights and increase your reps. Your body changes every single day during pregnancy so it’s important not to accidentally overdo it

Now the basics have been outlined, here are a few of the best pregnancy exercises and movements to add into your routine during your pregnancy:

Pelvic floor

I cannot stress how important it is to perform pelvic floor exercises as often as you can throughout your whole pregnancy and beyond. These exercises can be done seated or standing and therefore are easy to do at any time during the day. It’s important to learn to contract completely and also relax entirely.

Deep core breathing is really key to true engagement of the pelvic floor and also the core. Lock in the transverse abdominis muscles (TVA) with these deep breaths - imagine wearing a corset squeezing your waist together. This is sometimes known as belly pumping or belly vacuums.

Try to associate something you see frequently throughout the day with PFE. This could be stopping at traffic lights, getting a drink from the tap, turning on your computer screen, anything which will prompt you. Alternatively, there are a number of apps you can download which will send discreet reminders throughout the day.

If you do nothing else during your pregnancy, this is the one thing that is crucial to focus on.

Glutes

Glute training is very important during pregnancy and should be prioritised in any exercise program. Strong glutes will help to stabilise the pelvis and improve posture and the curved spine that comes with the weight of the growing bump.

Squats and hip thrusts are also great exercises. For support, make use of your birthing ball in the later stages of your pregnancy. Squats particularly are great exercises to open the pelvis and help prepare the body for labour so great to practice throughout your pregnancy.

Glute training and activation can be low impact -  it doesn’t have to mean heavy weights. Body weight is more than sufficient, particularly in the later stages. Resistance bands can also be used to perform simple banded walks, lateral steps and kick-backs.

Woman swimming in pool

Walking, swimming and yoga

Light exercise, such as walking or swimming, are wonderful, low impact, mood enhancing activities. In particular, swimming is a great for giving relief to the joints by feeling weightless in water. Yoga is also brilliant for preparing the body for birth and for relaxation.

Are there any exercises you should avoid?

As long as you listen to your body, you will intuitively know when something doesn’t feel right. Below are some specific exercises and movements to avoid:

- Overhead weights can exacerbate back pain and particularly lordosis (a lower back curvature of the spine). Try to do weights seated and lift to shoulder height
- Lying supine (on your back) > 16 weeks. As the baby grows, the weight of the uterus can compress the vena cava which is the main blood supply to and from the foetus
- Exercising prone (lying on front). It’s very unlikely you would be comfortable in this position anyway but definitely one to avoid
- Prolonged motionless standing as this can cause an increase in blood pressure
- Heavy isometric resistance work as this can affect blood pressure and cause dizziness
- Resisted ab/adduction as this puts unnecessary strain on the already unstable pelvis and hip region
- Rapid changes of direction and uncontrolled twisting should be avoided due to reduced coordination and balance
- Excessive stretching should be avoided. Due to the hormones relaxing in your body, you are more likely to be able to overstretch, creating a greater risk of injury
- Contact sports are also not appropriate

What are the benefits of exercising while pregnant?

First and foremost, exercise will make you feel good! This is probably one of the most important factors because, let’s face it, exercise during this time will have very little impact on your physical appearance. If this has been your main motivation previously then it’s important to switch your focus elsewhere. An active pregnancy will help you learn to adapt to your new physical appearance better and deal with the changes to your body more positively.

Feeling good is also not to be underestimated at a time when many women can often feel their worst. Nausea and fatigue are very common symptoms in early pregnancy and even the smallest amount of activity, such as a short walk, will help women feel better during these times. Being physically active can also help to reduce fatigue, improve sleep patterns and reduce stress.

Exercise can also help to alleviate some other common pregnancy symptoms such as back pain, general aches and pains, posture, swelling, bloating and constipation. Most importantly, it may help to prevent or treat gestational diabetes.

Can you exercise throughout your whole pregnancy?

Yes! There may be times throughout your pregnancy where it is easier to find the motivation to be more active than others. It’s important to adapt your training to how you feel and how your body changes on a daily basis.

First trimester

The first trimester is the most likely time a woman can be beset with fatigue and nausea, as well as overwhelming hormones, which can sometimes cause unnecessary worry of doing anything which may harm the baby. Whilst it's natural to feel this way, research shows that physical activity is perfectly safe during the early months of pregnancy. Most women are able to carry on as they have been training prior to being pregnant. It may often be the last thing you feel like doing but even some gentle exercise is more than likely to make you feel better and more energised.

Second trimester

This is sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon phase” of pregnancy. Hopefully, from about 16 weeks, the majority of the unpleasant symptoms from the first trimester will have subsided and you will be feeling a bit more like yourself. You may even get the “pregnancy glow”. This is the ideal time to make the most of your workouts during this period.

Third trimester

At this stage, you can expect to be feeling larger and heavier and it may begin to take its toll on you physically. It can sometimes be a little awkward to work around the bump and aches and pains are on the increase. You may become short of breath easily so it’s important to modify any activity appropriately. Walking, yoga and swimming are perfect for this stage, as well as relaxation, breathing practice and pelvic floor exercises which are really key during this period and highly effective.”

Pregnant woman doing yoga outdoors

And there you have it! We hope this has busted a few of the myths related to exercise during pregnancy and encouraged mums-to-be to get moving! For more fitness and pregnancy advice, follow Amy Parr on Instagram at @babiesandbarbells. You can also find more training tips and tricks over on our blog.