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Afraid to exercise in pregnancy? Here are 5 tips to get started safely

A pregnant woman working out with weightsI’ve seen some alarmist posts in social media in the past few months regarding exercise in pregnancy.

Sure there are some who are probably pushing the barriers a bit, but let’s be real here – most pregnant women in Australia exercise too little, not too much. In fact, a lot of women stop their regular exercise program the second they find out they’re pregnant – often through fear of harming the baby.

In the US fewer than 1 in 4 meet the physical activity guidelines for pregnancy and here in Australia we have more than 50 per cent of pregnant women sitting in the overweight/obese BMI range. I think that is more concerning than the small number of women doing hardcore exercise!

The benefits of exercise in pregnancy are numerous and well-documented— I spent 15 minutes in pregnancy pilates class this week waxing lyrical about how exercise in pregnancy can improve strength, fitness, back pain, feelings of low mood, sleep quality and so much more.

If that isn’t enough for you, what about this? Exercise in pregnancy could help you when it comes to giving birth. If you exercise regularly in pregnancy you could have a shorter pushing stage, require less analgesia and be less likely to have a c-section. Sounding pretty good?

I think most women know they should exercise in pregnancy, but I think many don’t know how to start and are fearful of getting it wrong.

Here are my top 5 tips on getting off the couch and safely into a regular program…

5 tips on starting exercise safely in pregnancy

1. If you are scared to do it alone, then don’t! Get some guidance.

Join a pregnancy exercise class or find yourself a personal trainer or physiotherapist who specialises in working with the antenatal population. They will help ensure that you are doing exercise suitable not only for pregnancy, but also for your current fitness level. If you are by nature a very sedentary person and are not used to exercise, then having a supervised program is definitely recommended so you have guidance on how to start and how/when to safely progress.

Classes and one-on-one training sessions also help improve accountability. If you are someone who needs some external motivation, then sign up for a regular class.

2. Get clearance from your doctor prior to starting.

There are some medical conditions, as well as a few pregnancy-related conditions, for which exercise is not recommended or close monitoring is required. It is always a good idea to see your doctor or obstetrician prior to getting started to ensure this is not the case for you.

3. Remember that exercise is not an “all or nothing” event.

Many people figure that if they can’t find time to go and do an hour of exercise, then there is no point in even starting. WRONG! Even a short five-minute walk around the block is beneficial to your health. It will help get your heart rate up, allow you to change your visual focus (especially if you are looking at a screen) and will get your joints and muscles moving. If you are stuck at your desk for long periods, just stand up and stretch your body in different directions or walk to the kitchen and make a cup of tea. Little bits of movement performed often can all add up!

If you find that time is the big barrier to exercise, try to add some exercise into your daily commute – park a little further from work, or get off the train one stop early and walk the remaining distance.

4. Get to know your body and monitor symptoms

How hard should I be working out? I recommend using the “talk test” when figuring out how hard to work during pregnancy. Simply put, if you are a little breathless, but can still comfortably hold a conversation, then you are working at an appropriate level. If you are puffing like a steam train, then you are definitely working too hard!

What about temperature? We definitely want to avoid overheating during pregnancy, due to potential risks to the baby. The best ways to avoid this are to:

  • not exercise during the heat of the day (esp January in Perth!)
  • make sure there is good ventilation
  • keep well hydrated
READ: Check out this article on Things to Look Out for When Exercising in Pregnancy and for more info visit the Sports Medicine Australia and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists websites.

In a nutshell – if you have any concerns, just call up your doctor or midwife straight away and ask. Some of the symptoms that require immediate follow up include bleeding, chest pain, excessive breathlessness, calf pain, headaches, dizziness and reduced foetal movements.

If you have pain when exercising, please follow up with a health professional. If the pain is in the abdomen, then your doctor should be contacted immediately.

As you progress through your pregnancy trimesters, keep in mind the changes that your body is going through in growing a new little human and adjust your program accordingly. If you are lifting weights, you will likely find that you need to reduce the amount that you are lifting over the course of the pregnancy. You may start out finding that running feels great, but then notice that you are too breathless or that you feel some heaviness in the perineum (the area between your pubic bone and coccyx). Don’t consider this somehow a failure! The biomechanics of your body are constantly changing in pregnancy, with the increase in weight and the lengthening of the abdominal muscles being just part of the picture. Try to find something that you can continue with for as long into the pregnancy as you feel comfortable.

5. Try and get a combination of aerobic exercise, stretching and strengthening.

Is there a perfect exercise program? My view is that the perfect exercise program for you is the one that you will actually do and enjoy!

The current recommendations are that “all women should be encouraged to participate in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle during their pregnancy” (RCOG Guidelines). I tend to add stretching to the list too, as I do find that many women get stiff during pregnancy, especially in their spine.

So what could a program actually look like? Here are some ideas:

  • Aerobic exercise: brisk walk, swimming, hydrotherapy class, cycling, cross-trainer, dancing
  • Strength-conditioning – pregnancy pilates, weight training, qi-gong
  • Stretching – home stretches, pregnancy yoga class, stretching DVD

See? It doesn’t have to be too complicated. Find a combination that you enjoy and see if you can manage to do something every day.

And remember – walking IS exercise!

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