It is easy to underestimate the importance of pregnancy exercise. Your ability to cope with pregnancy, especially after birth is easier with regular exercise throughout
Is it safe to exercise during pregnancy?
The answer is generally yes. However, there are a few precautions that are important. Firstly, the earlier you start exercising the better. Unless your doctor has advised against exercise for a medical reason or you feel unwell due to morning sickness. If this is not the case, it’s important to get started in the early stages.
This is a great time to begin to work on your strength. Particularly around your hips and pelvis, your pelvic floor, and your upper body posture. Upper strength is often underestimated until after your start breastfeeding!
It is generally safe to continue with most exercise programs that you do regularly prior to pregnancy. If you enjoy running regularly, you should be able to continue running during your pregnancy, especially in the early stages.
The problems occur when you want to start a new exercise program late in the pregnancy (>20 weeks), particularly if you haven’t regularly exercised beforehand. Women often want to start late because they have “put on too much weight” or you find that they are not strong enough.
Changes to the body during pregnancy
When you become pregnant, the first thing your body does is adapt as if you are training with exercise. Your regular blood volume increases by about 50%. To compensate, your resting heart rate rises to accommodate for the extra blood volume. Your resting respiratory rate also rises. This means you get more puffed doing the same things that you would normally do.
If you start late in the pregnancy, your body is already having to adapt to these changes. But, in addition, you also have to cope with the increased load of adapting to the training effects of exercise. Our strongest recommendation, start early in pregnancy. We often have to turn women down from starting with us too late in their pregnancy.
Make sure you are hydrated and have had a carbohydrate snack before exercising. You may be able to get away with exercising and NOT eating or drinking water prior to pregnancy, but not during pregnancy. During pregnancy, your body prefers giving circulating blood glucose to your baby for nutrition before you.
When you exercise your blood sugar drops faster than before. So, it is important to have small amounts of carbohydrates before and after exercise. As your blood volume rises, you need to also increase your water intake to stay hydrated.
Finally, after certain stages (>16 weeks), it is not recommended that you exercise lying on your back. At this stage, the baby (and surrounding fluid) is large enough to start to affect the blood returning to your heart. Blood returning from the veins of your lower body can partially compress the inferior vena cava in this position. Although you can lie on your back for short periods of time, you will find it uncomfortable and want to change positions.
In general, depending on how you feel, you can exercise all the way up until you are ready to give birth. The latest stage we have exercised with a pregnant woman is at 43weeks and she felt fine. But, this is different for everyone. You should feel good after your exercise session. But, if you feel exhausted after your sessions and feel like to are “wiped out”, this is your body telling you to stop. This tends to occur from the 32-week mark or later, but is extremely variable and often occurs quite suddenly, so listen to your body.
The best type of exercise during pregnancy?
It is usually safe to continue with exercise that you love during pregnancy or that you did prior to pregnancy. My strongest recommendation is to commence a structured strengthening program that works at least on the following muscles:
- Muscles around the hips and pelvis.
- Muscles in the upper body to support posture.
- and the pelvic floor muscles.
The biggest thing that we see is that most women are not strong enough in general. Especially for coping with the changes in the body during and after pregnancy.
The most common physical complication during pregnancy is pelvic (Sacro-iliac joint) pain. This can occur early, mid or late in the pregnancy, depending on the woman. It occurs because as the hormone Relaxin is released, to make the ligaments around the pelvis “softer” in preparation for birth.
The muscles around the area need to work harder to make the area stable. You may be able to get away with weak muscles around the area prior to pregnancy, but during, the loads are greater and can often lead to pain. My strongest advice, strengthen your gluteal muscle groups!
Secondly, it is easy to underestimate the importance of upper body strength. Poor upper body posture is felt most after birth when you are constantly carrying the baby or breastfeeding/pumping. This is a very common source of pain for young mums and the best time to work on the area is during pregnancy.
Finally, work on your pelvic floor muscles. The stronger these muscles are prior to birth, the faster and more complete the recovery afterward. These muscles are affected not only during birth but prior as well. The load of the baby and surrounding fluid stretches the nerves that supply the pelvic floor.
This affects the muscle’s ability to contract and hold load. The earlier you work on the area, the better and the better the recovery post-birth.
The harm of not doing exercise during pregnancy?
There are two major aspects to consider when not exercising during pregnancy. Firstly, the pregnancy and recovery after birth are just much harder than they need to be. As you are not strong enough/fit enough during pregnancy without exercise, the fatigue is greater. Coping with the pregnancy is harder and recovery takes a lot longer.
We have seen many women who have not exercised during their first pregnancy but exercised during the second pregnancy and the experience is chalk and cheese. The second pregnancy is easier to cope with. They feel stronger and have less pelvic pain, so start early and keep it regular.
Secondly, it is extremely important for the prevention/management of gestational diabetes. You may not be fully in control of whether you develop gestational diabetes, but you can help preserve and increase your muscle mass.
Muscle mass is extremely important in managing glucose metabolism. It is the major aspect that you can change that pulls glucose from your blood stream and stores it. The major senses for insulin are on muscle and their number and effectiveness are affected by how fit/strong you are.
If you don’t know where to start with pregnancy exercise, speak to either an accredited exercise physiologist or physiotherapist. Seeking those who regularly look after pregnant women is a great first step.
Source: The Brain: A User’s Guide
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