‘Exercise is dangerous for you and your baby’, ‘exercise will make you feel more tired’ and ‘you can’t lift weights, you can only walk and do yoga’ are just three of the many myths I hear surrounding exercise and pregnancy. I am going to explain to you why this is a load of rubbish and why exercise, including lifting weights, should in fact be an important part of your pregnancy self-care, and how you can go about it safely.
Exercise can reduce the risk of pregnancy-related complications
Getting regular exercise during pregnancy can help to reduce your risk of pregnancy-related complications. It’s estimated that 4.4% of pregnant people worldwide experience gestational diabetes, a condition which occurs when a hormone made by the placenta prevents your body from using insulin correctly, resulting in high blood sugar. Exercise helps with gestational diabetes in two ways; firstly, because it lowers blood sugar. Secondly, because muscle tissue uses up sugar in the blood even when you’re resting, so building muscle through resistance exercise (i.e., lifting weights) is particularly important to prevent and control gestational diabetes.
Pre-eclampsia is another condition that affects around 4.6% of people during pregnancy. It is characterised by high blood pressure (hypertension) and protein in the urine. Exercise, particularly if it is cardiovascular (i.e., the type that gets you a little out of breath), is an important tool to reduce your risk of developing pre-eclampsia because it can help to strengthen the heart and lower blood pressure.
Exercise can help alleviate lower back and pelvic pain during pregnancy
It’s incredibly common to experience lower back and pelvic pain during pregnancy, particularly towards the latter stages, with around 50% of pregnant people experiencing this. Although this type of pain is somewhat inevitable during pregnancy, due to the anatomical changes that occur, it can be made less severe by exercising. I would encourage you to work on strengthening the muscles in your back, core, and glutes in particular because this will help to promote good posture and reduce the pressure on your lower back. Also, try to move around little and often throughout the day because musculoskeletal pain is often worse when you’ve been sedentary for long periods.
Exercise can promote a healthy rate of weight gain during pregnancy
Although weight gain is a normal and healthy part of pregnancy, this should happen at an appropriate rate for you. This will depend on your starting weight; if you’re underweight when you become pregnant, you’re advised to gain more weight than if you’re initially overweight, in order to best support a healthy pregnancy. This is because weight gained during pregnancy is associated with your baby’s weight, and complications can arise if a baby’s birth weight is too low or too high. Evidence suggests that those who participate in aerobic exercise throughout their pregnancies typically gain less weight than those who do not exercise. Exercise can therefore be a useful tool to help promote a healthy rate of weight gain during pregnancy.
Exercise prepares your body physically for having a baby
Another brilliant reason to exercise during pregnancy is that you will need to be strong and fit enough to look after your baby once they arrive in the world. Carrying a baby is no joke, and they are only going to get heavier each week as they grow! So you’re going to need the strength in your arms, shoulders, back, chest, core and legs to be able to lift them safely and minimise the risk of injuring yourself. You’re also going to need to the stamina to look after your baby and run around after them once they start moving around more. Having a decent base level of strength and fitness will make a real difference to your ability to endure these physical challenges.
Exercise will help you to feel fabulous
It’s impossible for me to talk about the benefits of exercise without mentioning the psychological benefits that come along with it. In a nutshell, exercise will help you to feel fabulous! Even just a single exercise session can boost mood, self-esteem, and mental wellbeing, and reduce stress, anxiety and depression. There are likely to be several reasons for this; on a physiological level, when we exercise our brains release feel-good neurotransmitters such as endorphins, endocannabinoids, serotonin, and dopamine. These help to increase feelings of pleasure and numb pain. On a psychological level, exercise gives you valuable time-out from your daily routine which provides you with much-needed headspace, which can improve mental health. Hopefully you’ll also feel a sense of achievement after exercising, because you’ll have done something effortful and positive for your health, which can help to improve mood.
What exercise during pregnancy cannot guarantee
All of this being said, it’s important to note that exercise during pregnancy cannot guarantee certain birth outcomes. It cannot guarantee an easy, fast, or natural birth. Some people will exercise throughout pregnancy and unfortunately experience traumatic births, and others will be sedentary during pregnancy and have uncomplicated births. Your activity or fitness level has no bearing on your labour outcomes. However, hopefully all these other wonderful benefits of exercise are more than enough reason to stay active during your pregnancy.
What do I need to know if I want to start exercising during pregnancy?
There are a few things to consider when getting started with an exercise routine during pregnancy. If you’ve exercised in the past, most activities you’ve recently done will probably be fine to continue with for the majority of your pregnancy, provided that they are deemed safe (see below for types of exercise to avoid). It’s also absolutely fine to take up exercise during pregnancy even if you’ve not exercised before, again provided that it adheres to the following guidelines.
There are however some forms of exercise you should avoid during pregnancy:
Exercise with a high risk of falls (e.g., horse riding, climbing)
Contact sports with a high risk of being hit (e.g., boxing, rugby)
Exercising at altitudes over 2500m above sea level (e.g., skiing, hiking up mountains)
Lying flat on your back for long periods, particularly after 16 weeks (use an incline instead)
The guidelines for the recommended amount of exercise during pregnancy are the same as for all adults, which is 150 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise (such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming, or using the cardio machines in the gym) and at least two sessions of resistance exercise per week. I would encourage you to do little and often (i.e., aim to be active most days), rather than cram all your exercise into a couple of days each week, as this will help you to feel good and manage your energy levels.
Red flags to look out for
There are a few things to watch out for when you’re exercising during pregnancy which could be the sign of a more serious problem. If you experience any of the following symptoms you should stop exercising and seek urgent medical attention:
Excessive shortness of breath
Chest pain or heart palpitations
Dizziness or feeling faint
Pelvic or back pain
Abdominal pain or painful contractions
Muscle cramps or weakness
Calf pain, swelling, or redness
Leaking fluid from your vagina
Your baby isn’t moving as much as usual
A final word from me
The most important thing is to listen to your body! If you’re taking part in a class or working with a PT let them know you’re pregnant so they can accommodate for you or refer you to someone who will be able to. Make sure you stay hydrated before, during, and after exercise. If you need any support with exercise during pregnancy, I’m always happy to chat! You’ll can find out more about what I do over on my website at www.maddiefreemanfitness.com or on my Instagram at @maddie_freeman_fitness.
Abalos, E., Cuesta, C., Grosso, A.L., Chou, D., & Say, L. (2013). Global and regional estimates of preeclampsia and eclampsia: a systematic review. European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Reproductive Biology, 170(1), 1-7.
Behboudi-Gandevani, S., Amiri, M., Bidhendi Yarandi, R., et al. (2019). The impact of diagnostic criteria for gestational diabetes on its prevalence: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetology and Metabolic Syndrome, 11(11).
Davenport, M.H., Marchand, A., Mottola, M.F., et al. (2019). Exercise for the prevention and treatment of low back, pelvic girdle and lumbopelvic pain during pregnancy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 53, 90-98.
Lamina, S., & Agbanusi, E. (2013). Effect of aerobic exercise training on maternal weight gain in pregnancy: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Ethiopian Journal of Health Sciences, 23(1), 59-64.
Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48-56.