Why it's so important to exercise during pregnancy

What’s the truth about working out while pregnant? [Photo: Getty]

The benefits for mums-to-be of exercising in pregnancy have long been discussed, but new research has revealed that keeping fit while pregnant can also help protect babies from obesity.

The study, presented at the American Physiological Society’s annual meeting, found that exercising while expecting helps boost a child’s metabolic health.

Researchers discovered youngsters were less likely to gain weight throughout adolescence if their mother regularly exercised during pregnancy.

Following the results, study author Jun Seok Son, of Washington State University, is urging all pregnant women to prioritise physical fitness.

“Based on our findings we recommend that women – whether or not they are obese or have diabetes – exercise regularly during pregnancy because it benefits their children’s metabolic health,” he said.

“Our data suggest that the lack of exercise in healthy women during pregnancy can predispose their children to obesity and associated metabolic diseases partially through impairing thermogenic function.”

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Despite the latest research exercising while pregnant remains a controversial issue.

Mums-to-be are regularly shamed for working out with a bump, with many claiming it can be harmful to them and their unborn babies.

So what’s the truth, should pregnant women be exercising while pregnant and if so, how much should they be doing?

“The benefits of exercising for our physical and mental health have been known for some time and actually, they can be even more beneficial if you are exercising while pregnant,” explains Cecilia Harris, Head PT and co-founder of online fitness and nutrition platform, Results with Lucy.

“Exercise strengthens your cardiovascular system which can really help if you’re feeling low on energy. It will also strengthen your muscles which will ultimately help your body to support the weight of your growing baby and more generally, stronger muscles will help reduce the aches and pains that many women often experience while pregnant,” she continues. 

Other benefits of exercising with a bump include helping to get your body ready for labour and birth and giving a natural high which can be beneficial for your mind.

“The list of benefits goes on but it’s important that each woman finds what works for her and what makes her feel good because there is no one size fits all approach to exercising when pregnant,” Cecilia adds. 

With that in mind, here’s your need-to-know guide to working out while pregnant, from how much you should be doing, to which exercises you should be focussing on and what to do if you’d never step foot in a gym before becoming a mum-to-be.

How much is too much exercise when you’re pregnant? [Photo: Getty]

How much is too much? 

“It’s important to remember that exercise does not have to be strenuous to be beneficial,” says Cecilia.  “You do not have to be sweating buckets and be out of breath to have had a good workout.”

If you exercised regularly before pregnancy Cecilia suggests aiming for 3-4, 45 minute sessions a week and making sure you stop before tiring yourself out. 

If you were not regularly exercising before you became pregnant, she recommends seeking your doctors advice first, then speaking with a PT. If you’re given the go ahead to exercise, as a guide she recommends starting with three, 15 minute sessions a week.

“If that feels good then up it gradually to 30 minutes, three times a week. Again, listen to your body and if you are exercising in a gym ask PT’s for advice and make sure you let class instructors know you are pregnant so they can give you different variations of exercises if necessary,” she says. 

READ MORE: Is it really possible to not know you’re pregnant until you give birth?

The exercise shift

Cecilia says there are things you will need to be aware of and adjust now that you are pregnant.

“You may be more prone to injury because your joints will loosen as a result of a hormone called relaxin that is released when pregnant,” she explains. She suggests avoiding exercises that cause a lot of impact on joints.

“You aren’t trying to break any records when pregnant so don’t try and lift heavy weights and avoid exercises where you may lose balance and fall.”

She also advises you don’t allow yourself to overheat, to stop if you feel dizzy and always stay hydrated.

Listen to your body

“It’s important to remember that exercise is personal and you should always listen to your body, even more so if you are working out during pregnancy,” Cecilia says.

“If you are a person that always exercised before pregnancy, then you can feel safe and secure in the knowledge that you will be able to do a variety of exercises including Pilates, weights, yoga and swimming now that you are pregnant. If you are new to exercise then take it slow, listen to your body and so long as exercise feels good, keep going.”

Up the hydration

According to Simone De La Rue, certified PT and a pre and postnatal specialist it is important to stay even more hydrated than you do normally if you’re working out with a bump. “Pregnant women actually need 6-8 more glasses of water a day when working out in comparison to before pregnancy,” she says.

“It’s easy to overheat whilst working out when pregnant, so wearing cotton clothes that breathe and allow you to release sweat is also advised,” she adds.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

You might have been able to bench press like a pro, pre-pregnancy but chances are you’re not going to be able to lift as much with a bump and you’re sprint times might take a hit too.

“Please don’t worry or stress about this,” says Cecilia. “It’s completely natural. Everybody is different so don’t compare yourself to anyone else in the gym, or to the you before pregnancy, find what works for you in the here and now and what makes you feel good.”

As a general rule, Cecilia says the aim should be to keep your current level of fitness rather than trying to reach peak fitness.

“While pregnancy isn’t the time to break any records, staying fit through exercise will give you lots of confidence in your physical ability going into labour and recovery following the birth.”

There are plenty of myths surrounding working out while pregnant [Photo: Getty]

READ MORE: Is it really possible to not know you’re pregnant until you give birth?

Find your new fitness favourites

“There are so many exercises women can do while they are pregnant,” Cecilia says. “Strength exercises will make your muscles stronger and are a good way to keep tone in your muscles during pregnancy. Examples of these exercises include weights, swimming and walking uphill.

“I would certainly advise swimming if you are looking to get your heart rate up with minimal impact on your joints. Swimming won’t strain your back and also supports your bump. Look out for Aqua Natal classes at your local pool. Yoga can help with flexibility, reduce stress and focuses on relaxation and breathing techniques which will come in useful during labour.”

Simone De La Rue says working on your upper body could be beneficial for mums-to-be post-birth. “The upper body will need a lot of strength once your little one is born – focusing on building your strength here is key,” she says. “After birth, holding the baby and breastfeeding will effect your posture, so find workouts which will strengthen your back, lats, rhomboids and shoulders. The same can also be said for the lower body during labour, so work on squatting and leg strength in order to be prepared for the big day.”

Forget the pregnancy myths

There are plenty of myths surrounding women exercising when pregnant, so Cecilia says it’s important to educate yourself so that you can separate the myths from the fact. “Common myths are that women should take it easy and keep their heart rate under 140 beats per minute; it’s too dangerous to lift weights; running while pregnant is unsafe and you can’t exercise your abs during pregnancy,” she says.

“Unless your doctor recommends taking it easy, which she/he may do in high-risk situations, the best way to prepare for your pregnancy and cope with labour is to get a minimum of 30 minutes of mild to moderate exercise in most days,” she continues.

“Experienced runners can continue running but I would advise sticking to level roads to reduce the risk of falling. When you are pregnant your joints and ligaments loosen which is important to keep in mind because it can make you more prone to injury.”

Ab exercises are also fine during the first 12 to 14 weeks of pregnancy. “I would recommend mums to be focus on ab exercises because a strong core will help support your lower back, reducing back pain.  After the first trimester, lying flat on your back in preparation for ab exercises can cause the weight of your uterus to compress blood vessels, restricting circulation to you and your baby. I would suggest avoiding these exercises after 14 weeks.”

Do your pelvic floors 

It’s important that these aren’t overlooked during pregnancy. “These exercises are easy to do and can be done at home, at the gym and even at work! The muscles of your pelvic floor come under enormous strain during pregnancy and childbirth so it’s important to strengthen these,” says Cecilia.

“Squeeze and lift your pelvic floor muscles; it will feel like you are trying to hold in a wee. Hold for around 8-10 seconds and repeat this 8-10 times.”