In one study, Dr. Hall and his colleagues looked at 845 pregnant women engaged in low, medium, and high levels of exercise and compared them to pregnant women who did not exercise. Those who worked out on stationary bicycles and weight lifting equipment three times a week, particularly those working at a high level, had shorter hospital stays and fewer incidences of Caesarean deliveries than the nonexercises.
James Clapp, M.D., professor of reproductive biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, found that physically fit women who continued to exercise during pregnancy used about half as much pain medication as nonexercisers in the study. And the women who stuck with exercise right up until delivery experienced a shorter labor than women who quit exercising.
What’s most reassuring about this research is that exercise can help women condition for childbirth without harming the mother or the baby.
Many obstetricians have been concerned that overheating and other effects of exercise could harm the fetus, says Dr. Clapp.
“Now there’s good evidence that continuing moderate exercise during pregnancy does not have a detrimental effect. Although more information is needed to be sure, the benefits appear to outweight the risks”. Dr. Clapp
Banish those Aches and Pains
Aside from conditioning women for childbirth, another big plus for prenatal exercise is that it reduces the aches and pains in the months leading up to delivery, says Dr. Hall.
For many women, pregnancy can feel like nine years of hard work even before real labor begins. An ever-enlarging abdomen strains your back and compresses your internal organs. This may cause you shortness of breath and constipation and may give you heartburn and hemorrhoids. Lugging around som 20 or 30 extra pounds drains you of energy. Women report that engaging in regular activity reduces these common discomforts, says Dr.Hall.
“Moderate exercise doesn’t interfere with the normal, necessary increase in a mother’s body fat and weight”, says Dr.Clapp. “But if continued, it appears to limit excess weight gain in late pregnancy.”
Studies show that women who continued to exercise during pregnancy gained an average of 5 pounds less than women who stopped exercising for the duration.
Perhaps exercise’s greatest gift to pregnant women is a positive boost in self-image. “Exercise helps women feel in control when their body seems to be growing out of control”, Dr.Hall.
As Beth Jackson puts it: “Exercising helped me feel graceful even though I looked like a clumsy blimp.”
Selecting the Safest Exercise
“Some physical activities are more appropriate for pregnant women than others”, says Dr.Hall. Ideally, he says, a prenatal exercise program should be aimed at correcting postural changes, minimizing discomforts, preparing muscles for delivery , and improving cardiovascular strength.
Of these, making postural changes is undoubtedly the most important prenatal exercise. Improving your posture helps shore up the abdominal wall and eliminate constipation, heartburn and hemorrhoids.
Half of all pregnant women are plagued with back pain. That’s because the growing baby shifts the center of gravity forward, lengthening the abdominal muscles while shortening the back muscles. In other words, the muscles around your spine may bear the brunt of the load in front.
Pelvic tilt exercise can help prevent back pain and improve posture. This easy movement tightens and strengthens the abdominal muscles. At the same time the back muscles are lengthened, helping to align the body.
“Performing pelvic tilts helps you not only see the difference in posture but feel it“, according to physical therapist Elizabeth Noble, founder of the Maternal and Child Health Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of Essential Exercises for the Childbearing Year. “Your back will feel better, and your posture will improve.”
You can perform pelvic tilts while lying down, sitting, or standing.
- Simply tip your pelvis upward, flattening out the hollow at the small of your back.
- Your shoulders remain still as you perform this movement.
- Hold the tilt for 3 seconds and release.
- Repeat the movement eight to ten times, relaxing for a few moments between repetitions.
The Importance of Low-Impact Aerobics
Aerobic exercise – continuous activity that raises your heart rate – can help build the cardiovascular strength you’ll need to handle the extra blood circulating in your system during pregnancy and the exertion of labor.
But when you’re pregnant, you must exercise aerobically within reason. This means high-impact aerobics is out, says Noble. Hormones that are released during pregnancy help soften ligaments and loosen the joints to accommodate a growing baby. “Your joints are more prone to injury”, says Noble.
Also, pregnancy is generally not the time to start new sports or set personal goals.
“The goal of prenatal exercise is not to be faster or stronger but to feel more comfortable.” Dr. Hall
Normal walking is fairly easy on the joints and helps tone the abdominal muscles, experts agree.
Walking briskly for 20 to 45 minutes three times weekly provides a good cardiovascular workout and can help combat varicose veins and swollen ankles.
By about the fourth month, when your belly blots out the view of your feet and your center of gravity shifts forward, you may be more comfortable switching to stationary bicycling. Swimming in a warm pool is even better. “Swimming has the advantage of taking the load off and keeping you cool“, says John Joseph Botti, M.D., director of the Division of Maternal and Fetal Medicine at Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
“Most women may be able to swim until late in pregnancy or even up until the day they deliver”. John Joseph Botti
Do’s and Dont’s
“There’s no single exercise prescription that will meet the needs of all pregnant women,” says Raul Artal, M.D. professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and exercise science at the University of Southern California School of Medicine in Los Angeles.
“You should consult your doctor to help you tailor an exercise program based on your own pregnancy and health status and activity level.” Raul Artal, M.D.
If you are very overweight or carrying twins, have a history of obstetric complications, or have a physical condition that affects your heart or lungs, all but the most mild stretching exercises may be off-limits.
While you have a wide range of beneficial exercises to choose from, there are a few that you’ll want to avoid for safety reasons.
On the experts’ list of exercises generally considered taboo are activities that may involve falling, such as horseback riding and downhill skiing. Activities involving bouncing and quick, jerky turns-such as racquet sports-are not recommended because of their potential to damage joints and ligaments, which are loosened by the hormonal changes of pregnancy. You should avoid lifting heavy weights for the same reason.
If you have been running on a regular basis, experts say you may continue running throughout your pregnancy, provided you get your doctor’s approval and you moderate your pace. Some doctors recommend limiting running to no more than 2 miles daily during pregnancy.
“You should pace and distance yourself according to your own physical comfort and with the guidance of your doctor,” says Dr.Botti.
Many runners find that the enlarging abdomen naturally slows them down around the fifth month of pregnancy and that walking regularly is easier during the remaining months, says Dr.Botti.
Whether you join a group or go solo, you should get approval from your obstetrician and follow these exercise guidelines set by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. They are aimed at minimizing overheating, dehydration, lowered oxygen, and injury to mother and baby.
- Don’t exercise in hot, humid weather or when you have a fever. Avoid saunas and hot tubs.
- Don’t exercise strenuously for prolonged periods. After 15 minutes stop and take your pulse. Your exercising heart rate should not exceed 140 beats per minute. The activity should not leave you gasping for breath; you should be able to talk and exercise at the same time.
- Don’t exercise while lying on your back for prolonged periods. This position may be risky because the uterus cuts off blood flow to the heart.
- Do gentle warm-up stretches before aerobic exercise.
- Don’t stretch to the point of pain.
- Do drink liquids before, during, and after exercise.
- Do listen to your body. What may be simple one day may be difficult the next.
- Do stop and consult you doctor if you have pain, bleeding, or unusual symptoms.
Source: “Training the body to cure itself. How to use exercise to heal”, by the editors of Prevention Magazine Health Books.