Historically, pregnancy was considered a time for rest. Pregnant women were advised to ‘take it easy’ and refrain from participating in exercise for fear it may harm the mother and/or her unborn child. However, times have changed and current research now clearly links appropriate exercise during pregnancy with a variety of associated health benefits for both the mother and baby.
In women who are sufficiently active during pregnancy, these health benefits include reducing their risk of gestational diabetes up to 30 per cent, as well as helping to reduce the risks of other pregnancy-related complications such as pregnancy induced hypertension and obstetric intervention (Ceasarian-sections). Active pregnant women also have greater control over their gestational weight gain, increased cardiovascular function, improved muscle strength and endurance, and enjoy a heightened sense of energy, wellbeing and self-esteem.
The unborn child enjoys improved placenta viability, increased amniotic fluid levels and a reduced risk of both cardiovascular disease and obesity-related health problems later in life.
Despite these now well-established health benefits to exercise during pregnancy for both the pregnant woman and her unborn child, research suggests that as little as 30 per cent of Australian pregnant women are sufficiently active. Moreover, research has shown us that both exercise frequency and intensity continues to decline as pregnancy progresses.
These low adherence rates to exercise during pregnancy may, in part, be due to the many barriers that pregnant women face on a daily basis. These include morning sickness that may last all day, lack of time with work and/or other family commitments, having other children at home, and/or conflicting advice about the exercise one should or should not be doing during pregnancy.
Here is the thing... despite all of the legitimate barriers to exercise during pregnancy, pregnant women need to get moving! And it may be easier than you think.
Current exercise guidelines for pregnant women state that all healthy pregnant women, free of medical or obstetric complications, should be aiming to accumulate between 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-high intensity activity by exercising on most, if not all days of the week. Pregnant women are also encouraged to participate in two sessions of sub-maximal strength training per week. Women previously inactive before pregnancy should aim to meet the 150 minutes a week and try to build up to 300 minutes per week as cardiovascular fitness improves.
Given that these current guidelines allow us to accumulate exercise, this means we can break our ‘daily dose’ down into smaller, more achievable bouts. For example, we could break up a daily dose of say 20 to 45 minutes of exercise into two to three sessions a day of as little as 10 to 15 minutes per session. Exercise intensity can be moderate-high, meaning you should be able to intermittently chat, but not be able to maintain a conversation or sing. Exercising at a high intensity for women who have previously been exercising (e.g. regular gym-goers or athletes) at this intensity is safe. However, high intensity exercise needs to be supervised by an appropriate health professional.
If women already participate in an exercise routine before becoming pregnant, current research suggests it is absolutely safe to continue to participate in their usual routine during pregnancy. However, modifications will most likely need to be made as the pregnancy progresses. This is something that should be discussed in depth with an appropriate health professional such as a GP, obstetrician, gynaecologist or accredited exercise physiologist. However, as a general recommendation, activities/exercises to avoid during pregnancy include:
- Lying in supine (on back) position from second trimester onwards, specifically after 16 weeks gestation.
- Exercises that result in holding your breath due to the effort required.
- Exercises which present a higher risk than others of impact/force/collisions, require sudden changes in direction, or extreme flexibility, coordination and/or balance.
- High altitudes or scuba diving.
- Walking lunges (due to unnecessary pressure to pelvic/pubis region).
Current research also suggests that strength training during pregnancy should consist of sub-maximal efforts. Pregnant women are strongly encouraged to work all major muscle groups over eight to 10 exercises and perform at least one set of 12-15 repetitions per exercise.
In summary, it is vital to put the welfare of both mother and unborn child first. There is no need for the mother to prove anything. Whether it be showing that they’ve still ‘got what it takes’ to smash out a ‘WOD’ or run longer and harder than the person next to them on a treadmill (as we all know we do this)! The reality is that there is currently no known upper limit to exercise intensity for pregnant women, so while pregnant women may still be able to mix it with the fittest or fastest or strongest, it may not be safe. Therefore, it’s not worth the risk and is unnecessary.
It is more important to work within the above guidelines and save those impressive moves for an inspiring comeback after baby is born and it’s safe to return to exercise. Ultimately, everyone is different and it’s important that pregnant women listen to their body. Exercise during pregnancy should not be about proving anything, but rather about staying fit and healthy for the associated health benefits to both mum and her unborn child.
Mel is quickly establishing herself as a national and international leader in the area of exercise and pregnancy. She is currently in her last year of her PhD at CQ University where she also lectures in the School of Medical and Applied Sciences. She has recently authored the Exercise During Pregnancy Fact Sheet for SMA and is currently working on updating the SMA Exercise During Pregnancy Statement and developing the RANZCOG Exercise During Pregnancy Position Statement. Mel and her husband have a beautiful young boy together and love living a fit and healthy lifestyle.
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