If you’re into fitness and contemplating having a baby, I’m sure you’re both excited and anxious. Excited to take the journey; anxious about the weight gain and the impact pregnancy will have on your body composition and fitness.
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So, in this article, I’m going to share with you strategies for maintaining and/or improving your fitness, even while pregnant.
That’s right, you can exercise and even set fitness goals during pregnancy.
In fact, the research is pretty clear that exercise during pregnancy provides numerous health benefits to both mother and child.
Exercise benefits during pregnancy
There are a myriad of benefits attributed to exercise during pregnancy; here are just a few:
- Lower risk of developing gestational diabetes
- Weight control
- Reduced postpartum depression
- Less water retention
- Larger placenta and more nutrients for your baby
- Decreased likelihood of varicose veins
- Less likely to require a caesarian delivery
- More rapid return to pre-pregnancy weight
- Leaner children up to 5 years after delivery
- Increased fitness for delivery & for toting around your new baby stroller and diaper bag
The evidence in favor of exercise during pregnancy is so strong that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) encourages pregnant women to do moderate exercise for 30 minutes or more every single day.
Studies have even shown that very physically active women can benefit from continuing their high volume exercise routines, as much as 9 hours per week, into pregnancy.
Exercise dos and don’ts
Although exercise is a great thing for both mother and child, it’s important to understand a few exercise dos and don’ts, adjusting your exercise program appropriately.
Do Adjust Your Goals
First, you’ll have to adjust your goals.
Chances are you are exercising to either gain lean mass or lose fat. Well, when pregnant, weight gain is to be expected. To this end, exercise intensity has to be kept in check.
So get all ideas of building muscle and losing fat out of your mind. Your new focus should be maintaining your fitness while gaining a healthy, but not excessive, amount of weight.
Do Manage Heart Rate
Remember, your first responsibility while pregnant is to create the optimal environment for your baby.
We all know that smoking and drinking are out.
However, you also need to keep your body temperature and heart rate in check. In order to do this, you’re going to have to pay close attention to your exercise intensity.
According to Dr Michelle Mottola, exercise and pregnancy researcher at the University of Western Ontario: “If you can carry on a conversation without getting out of breath, then you are doing OK.”
This usually means that your heart rate shouldn’t climb higher than 70-75% of maximum (HR maximum = 220-age) during aerobic exercise sessions.
Do Manage Body Temperature
Another strategy is to keep your body temperature under 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius), especially during the third trimester.
While human studies haven’t confirmed this, animal research shows that overheating can cause birth defects.
Just to be on the safe side, avoid exercise in extremely hot or humid conditions (including hot yoga) and always remain hydrated during exercise.
Further, avoid traditional recovery modalities like saunas, hot tubs, and steam showers during pregnancy.
In addition, it’s a great idea to ingest 500-1000ml of fluid during every workout. This can help to maintain hydration status and manage body heat.
Do Maintain Almost Daily Exercise
Although your exercise intensity will have to be kept in check, your exercise volume doesn’t necessarily have to decrease.
In fact, it’s recommended that pregnant women exercise at least 30 minutes daily and this exercise can consist of a wide variety of exercise modalities.
Exercises you can do
During pregnancy, certain exercise limitations are obvious; contact sports and sprinting are out. However, other exercises are permissible as long as you consider the changes happening in your body.
For example, while pregnant, concentrations of one particular hormone, relaxin, are increased. Relaxin, as the name suggests, is responsible for relaxing the pelvic joints in preparation for childbirth. However, relaxin loosens all ligaments and joints, making you more susceptible to tendon and ligament (soft tissue) injury.
So, higher impact activities and other exercises that increase soft tissue risk should therefore be minimized.
For example, if you take classes, either stick with those designed specifically for pregnant women or those that don’t include high-impact work like plyometrics.
Further, choose activities that create less joint stress such as swimming, elliptical exercise, stair climbing, walking, and riding the stationary bike.
Also, contrary to popular belief, you can perform weight training while pregnant.
In fact, weight training can be one of the most beneficial activities for the pregnant woman as long as the following criteria are followed:
Support Your Spine
Choose exercises that require you to support your spine with your core/abdominal muscles.
Also choose exercises that maintain a neutral spine position. This usually means choosing free weight or body weight exercises over machines.
Use Your Muscles
Avoid using momentum to move the weights; make sure to lift and lower with your prime mover muscles.
After the first trimester, avoid exercises that cause you to lie flat on your back (i.e. bench presses). Exercising while flat on the back can diminish blood flow to both your brain and to your uterus.
Further, avoid exercises that press against the stomach (i.e. chest supported rows).
Avoid the Valsalva maneuver, where you forcefully exhale without actually releasing air. It can result in rapid increases in blood and intra-abdominal pressure. This may decrease oxygen flow to the fetus.
Use Higher Reps
You can still work hard, but stick with higher repetition sets (10-15 reps) performed at 65–75% of your 1RM during weight training sessions. This reduces Valsalva action and may help avoid stressing relaxed joints.
Work Your Core
Back and hip pain tend to increase during pregnancy. Fortunately, exercises that brace the core (front and side bridges) can strengthen the core musculature and reduce pain.
In the end, if you’ve been regularly exercising and have just become pregnant, the research is clear: most women can maintain a regular exercise regimen during pregnancy. However, please follow the guidelines laid out in this article to ensure you’re doing it right.
If you’re pregnant yet new to exercise, start very slow. A good idea is to work with a fitness professional well-versed in working with pregnant women. And always make sure you’re also taking care of your nutrition.
Eat, move, and live… better.
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