When you’re struggling to keep a meal down during the first trimester of pregnancy, dealing with a changing body in the second, or huffing and puffing just to make it to the bathroom as you near your due date, hitting the gym might be the last thing on your mind. But a growing body of research suggests that exercise has big benefits when you’re pregnant.
Even a simple walk around the block or a session of stretching can lead to an improved mood and better sleep. Make it a regular routine, and you'll up your odds of an easier labor and quicker recovery. So if you need some motivation to lace up those dusty sneakers, here it is.
Benefits of working out while pregnant
For all of your adult life, you’ve probably been aware that exercising — whether that means a yoga class, bike ride or run — can help prevent diseases like type 2 diabetes and benefit your overall health. During pregnancy, there are even more reasons to keep moving — or get moving, even if you haven’t had an exercise routine in the past.
Of course, exercising throughout pregnancy doesn’t guarantee a quick recovery or a pain-free back. But health care providers generally recommend that doing what exercise you can while pregnant is a great way to have a healthier and more comfortable pregnancy. (Be sure to get the go-ahead from your practitioner before starting any exercise program during pregnancy. Some conditions can contraindicate it.)
Exercising during pregnancy has been found to:
Improve your stamina and heart health
As you may have already guessed, working out can improve your overall fitness. By strengthening your heart and blood vessels through workouts, you’re prepping your body to tackle another physical challenge yet to come: labor and delivery.
Reduce the risk of pregnancy complications
Exercising while you’re expecting may lower the odds of developing certain conditions like gestational diabetes. And if you do develop gestational diabetes, staying active can help keep your insulin levels in check.
Boost your mood
Women are more susceptible to depression during pregnancy, with an estimated 1 in 2 of all women reporting increased depression or anxiety while expecting. But research has found that exercise during pregnancy releases endorphins that help improve mood while diminishing stress and anxiety.
Lower blood pressure
Blood pressure occasionally does go up during pregnancy, but a significant jump can be a warning sign of preeclampsia. Staying active — in one study, simply walking regularly — has been found to keep blood pressure from rising.
Ease back and pelvic pain
It’s no secret that your growing baby bump puts extra pressure on your lower half, resulting in lower back pain and an achy pelvis. Strengthening your abs, however, may result in less lower-back and pelvic pain during late pregnancy.
Just take care when you hit the gym, and avoid any moves that may worsen backaches (or create new ones).
Low-level tiredness plagues many women during the first trimester, then again late in the third trimester. While it seems paradoxical, sometimes getting too much rest can actually make you feel more pooped.
So while you should never push yourself to exhaustion, a little nudge — say, an easy walk or a prenatal yoga class — can make a big difference in your energy level.
While many pregnant women report having a harder time falling asleep, those who exercise consistently (as long as it's not near bedtime, which can prove energizing) say the quality of their sleep is better and that they wake up feeling more rested.
An active body encourages active bowels. Some women swear by a brisk 30-minute walk to keep them regular, while others say even a 10-minute stroll helps get things going.
Lower the odds of delivery complications
Women who exercised three times a week were less likely to have macrosomic babies (i.e., bigger babies), another study found. Having a heavier baby, in turn, can lead to complications for both mother and baby during delivery.
Speed post-delivery recovery
The more you increase your pregnancy fitness, the faster you'll recover physically after childbirth, the more fit you'll be after delivery. In a study, women who exercised recovered faster after labor (even after controlling for the type of delivery), resuming household chores more quickly than those who didn’t exercise.
How to start working out while pregnant
Most studies on the benefits of exercise during pregnancy look at the effects of about 150 minutes of active time per week. That number can include workouts of various lengths, whether it's five half-hour sessions or three or four longer classes.
And the benefits are incremental, researchers think, which means that some exercise — even if you don’t hit that 150-minute goal — is better than none. Anything that raises your heart rate and gets your muscles engaged counts — including walking, jogging, yoga, Pilates, dance, aerobics and swimming.
If you weren’t a gym rat before now, don’t worry. As long as you start out slowly, it’s safe to start now with your practitioner’s okay. Begin with five minutes of activity a day — like a brisk walk around the block — and add five minutes each week until you can stay active for 30 minutes.
Just be sure to follow the rules of pregnancy exercise safety, including:
- Avoid contact sports and activities with a high risk of falling (like downhill skiing, horseback riding and gymnastics).
- Stop a workout if you get light-headed or are unusually short of breath, feel contractions or decreased fetal movement, or have any vaginal bleeding or fluid leaking.
- Skip hot yoga and avoid exercising in very hot weather.
- Stay hydrated by drinking water before, during and after a workout.
- Hold off on exercises that involve lying flat on your back for long periods of time, especially after the fourth month.
- Remember that your center of gravity has changed. You may need a friend to spot you for unbalanced exercises or skip them altogether.
- Stay within your normal range of motion. Ligaments get looser in pregnancy so it's easier to sprain or strain a ligament.