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Exercising and pregnancy: The rules and risks

July 24th 2015 / Katie Robertson Google+ Exercising and pregnancy: The rules and risks


We delved into our experts directory to speak to industry leaders about the rules and risks of keeping motivated and moving while supporting a baby bump

Keeping active is an important part of staying healthy during pregnancy and can help prepare the body for childbirth, improve mood and bodily functions and encourage better sleep. The problem however, is that pregnancy can be a difficult, emotional and challenging time for women, with many unsure and concerned about the risks and rules of staying safe.

“I once answered questions on the radio about pregnancy and 70% of the calls were about exercise - there is a lot of confusion,” says fertility specialist Emma Cannon. Indeed, it is currently believed that as many as three quarters of women with a healthy pregnancy in the UK don't do enough exercise due to fear that it will damage either themselves or the baby.

“Keeping active during pregnancy may take an extra dose of motivation but it can really make a beneficial difference,” says personal trainer Christina Howells. “The first trimester is often the hardest and many women are surprised by how tired they feel and how it affects their workouts - but rather than give up you simply need to adjust to this short term change in your energy levels.”

To help straighten out a few more of the do’s and don't's of being active with a bump we posed the most common concerns around exercise and pregnancy to our directory of esteemed industry experts.

Is it safe for pregnant women to exercise?

“Exercise can be an enjoyable and healthy part of nearly all pregnancies,” says Emma Cannon. “However, the intensity and duration of the exercise will depend very much on the health of the individual woman. There is no one size fits all answer and this is the mistake most people make with their approach to exercise.

“Women enter pregnancy with very different levels of energy, health and fitness and this will impact on the sort of exercise they are advised to do. If the woman is in good health and the pregnancy occurred relatively easily and it is without complication, then there is no reason why she cannot continue to exercise as previously. However, I would still advise that she learns to listen to her body and respect her levels of energy. It is not advisable to push through tiredness for example.

“For women who had a complicated conception or who have had a previous miscarriage, I would always caution that a gentle approach to exercise, particularly in the first trimester, is advisable. If a woman enters pregnancy and is exhausted or has a history of complications, I would again emphasise rest and very gentle forms of exercise such as walking. In nearly all cases I advise against exercise that encourages sweating and excessive loss of fluids, heavy lifting or exercising to the point of exhaustion.”

London based personal trainer Christina Howells also recommends keeping things relaxed and low-key when trying to keep motivated and moving during pregnancy. “Heart rate is not an accurate gauge during pregnancy because it is already considerable higher than normal due to increases in blood volume. You don’t want to go all out and exhaust yourself during this time so listen to your body - whatever exercise you’re doing you should still be able to talk and not feel totally breathless at any point.”

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Depending on how far along the pregnancy is, should activity levels change?

“Yes. In general the first trimester needs to be a time when exercise is balanced with rest. There are many changes occurring and the pregnancy is still very much in the balance. Low impact exercise is preferable and it is certainly not a time to push yourself.

“In the second trimester your energy will be better, the morning sickness will have passed and hopefully you will enter into the blooming stage. You will be able to increase your activity in this stage.

“In the third trimester your size may start to slow you down. Swimming, walking and yoga are ideal. Women who run too much and have tight tendons tend to have a difficult labour or have babies that do not get into the optimal position for birth. Equally, women who are inactive may also struggle in the last trimester and their energy will become stagnant. This is also not ideal for labour. Balance and moderation are key.”

Are there any forms of exercise that should be discouraged at every stage of pregnancy?

“Yes - exercise that carries a risk of falling such as skiing, horse riding, ice hockey or cycling. Anything that involves lying on your back after 16 weeks is also not advisable.”

What types of exercise are recommended?

“Prenatal exercise classes are a great place to start as they take traditional exercise classes and make all the necessary modifications for pregnant women,” says Christina. “They are also a great time to meet other mums to be. During the class be mindful of how your body feels and limit your intensity as your body is already working hard.

“Alternatively pilates is also excellent during pregnancy as it helps you to maintain abdominal muscle tone, which can minimize back pain and give you some added oomph for pushing during the delivery. After the first trimester any classes based on mats can be problematic though as many of the movements are done on your back, so try to opt for a machine based class instead.

“Yoga is excellent for strengthening your core muscles and creating a feeling of calmness through use of the breath. If you can find a prenatal class then this is ideal as all the necessary modifications will be accounted for. Aqua aerobics is also an excellent choice especially in the third trimester as the water supports your weight and helps to build up balance - (and you can’t fall over!).”

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What are the main benefits of exercising while pregnant?

“Exercising while pregnant helps women to maintain fitness, improves their mood, prevents illness and can also help them to prepare for labour. Caution must be exercised though because it can also cause harm.”

How soon can a woman begin to exercise again after giving birth?

“Again this will differ for each individual and depends on the nature of the labour and how well the woman recovers. The time following a birth is when the woman’s physical and emotional health is extremely vulnerable. It is vital that she takes proper time to recover and rest and establishes a routine with her new baby. This is the priority and not ‘getting back in shape’ as quickly as possible.

“If the woman is breastfeeding, it will take all her energy to breastfeed her baby and take care of her own needs as well as the needs of her baby. I see many women with health problems that have started in the period after childbirth because of inadequate rest, lack of support and health problems that are not picked up early enough.

“In general though, apart from very gentle exercise such as stretching and walking, my advice is women should rest for around six weeks before any more intense exercise is started.”

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