Gone and forgotten are the days when women were told to stop exercising in pregnancy, thank goodness! The benefits of staying active in pregnancy far, far outweighs the risk - in fact you are more likely to have an easier labour and a speedier recovery if you have exercised throughout pregnancy than not.
Exercise in pregnancy helps:
- Minimise aches and pains common in pregnancy, such as back and pelvic pain, nausea and tiredness
- Maintain a strong cardiovascular system, supporting your heart, lungs and stamina needed for labour
- Maintain muscle tone, which limits joint pain or injury when bodyweight naturally increases
Overall, exercise during pregnancy gives your body and mind a chance to prepare physically and mentally for labour and looking after a newborn, both of which are undoubtedly a marathon, not a sprint.
Each trimester comes with its' own set of new changes to your body and it is important to make adjustments accordingly. Don't forget that each pregnancy is unique and whilst we touch on contra-indications in this article, always take your doctor's advice on exercise.
Exercise in pre-pregnancy
If you are planning and trying for a baby, you can carry on with your usual fitness routine as normal. If you come from a place of being fairly sedentary and inactive, start increasing your daily activity levels before falling pregnant, so that you establish good habits and a better starting point for a healthy pregnancy. On the other hand, if you are an exercise bunny that doesn't miss a single hiit session after a long day at work, it might be time to dial it down a notch. After all, exercise - particularly high intensity - is a form of stress put on the body, so overtraining and being in a constant fight-or-flight mode (work hard, exercise hard, play hard) is not the optimum environment for creating a new life! So whilst high intensity training is an excellent means of exercise, you may want to mix it up with some lower intensity work such as yoga or pilates, to help lower stress hormones and feel more grounded.
As a general rule when planning a family, focus on reducing stress levels and give your diet a healthy overhaul, to increase your chances of falling pregnant. Hormones and your cycle are negatively affected by high inflammation caused by stress and/or a poor diet, so these two factors are arguably more important to consider than exercise in pre-conception. If you are not doing so already, start tracking your cycle and become aware of your energy levels and mood, which can vary widely throughout the female cycle. Cycle tracking and optimising your exercise accordingly is another conversation, but keep an eye on it and see how things become more regular with optimised stress, diet and sleep! ...and don't forget to start taking folate!
Exercise in first trimester
You may not look or feel pregnant early on in the first trimester, but there is a huge amount going on in the body to support a pregnancy. One of the main physiological changes that can impact your exercise is an increase in hormone (estrogen and progesterone) production. There is also a significant increase in blood volume to enable transportation of oxygen and nutrients to the placenta and fetus. The rapid increase in estrogen is often to blame for morning sickness. Increased cardiac output can also lead to lightheadedness and headaches. Nausea and tiredness are common complaints, and whilst you can carry on with your normal exercise routine, you may want to dial it down to avoid breathlessness, feeling sick or overexerting yourself.
If you have no contraindications (such as bleeding), you can do whichever exercise you would like to do, with the exception of exercise that elevate your heart rate too much (hot yoga, really intense hiit, working out in hot conditions). It is also a good idea to avoid any extreme sports or activities with an increased risk of falling (such as horseriding). Whilst meditative, deep breathing is a great option for calming early pregnancy nerves, you should avoid breathwork where you hold your breath or hyperventilate.
If you're not feeling your best, try lower impact, such as yoga, pilates, gentle cardio (walking) or light resistance training - all of which are good options if you are fatigued or nauseous. This type of exercise can ease your symptoms and keep your activity levels up without the risk of feeling worse. After all, exercise in pregnancy is about maintenance, not hitting PB's!
If you have been sedentary for a long time, now is the time to put good habits in place for a healthy pregnancy and easier labour. Be sensible and listen to your body, gradually build up daily activity levels with walking and gentle exercise. Pregnancy is not the time to start running or lifting heavy if you're new to this type of exercise, but you can of course carry on with the exercise you are used to.
Keep an eye out for my next post on exercise in second and third trimesters