There’s a lot of debate out there about what is and isn’t safe for you and your unborn child, but the truth is that there are plenty of pregnancy exercises that you can perform to keep you happy and healthy throughout all of your trimesters.
In fact, regular, gentle exercise can be a great help during your pregnancy – and the fitter you are the better you’ll be at coping with the demands of a newborn baby. Anything that gets your heart going is good for you and your baby’s health, as it pumps oxygen, blood and vital nutrients more efficiently around the body and to the womb.
So, unless you’ve been advised by your GP or midwife not to do any activity, it can be a good idea to do something you enjoy.
Pregnancy exercises in each trimester
‘The exercises which are easiest or best will change throughout pregnancy,’ explains expert Dr Dawn Harper, partner of Aptaclub’s Active For 2 (for more information, visit aptaclub.co.uk/ActiveFor2).
‘In the first trimester (morning sickness and fatigue allowing), you will probably be able to continue your normal exercise regime but as the baby grows you may well find that swimming and yoga are easier than jogging, for example. You will probably also find that as your pregnancy progresses you may want to reduce the intensity to your workouts.’
It’s generally safe to continue your usual exercise regime in your first and second trimesters, or begin a new one gently (for instance, instead of taking up running with no experience, build up to brisk walks, and vary the intensity depending on how you feel).
In your third trimester, however, you may wish to slow down your usual routine to find a pace that works for you as your body changes – always consult an expert for guidance if you feel unsure.
Pregnancy exercises: What’s safe?
Dr Dawn adds that it’s incredibly important to listen to your body, and only exercise in a way that works for you. ‘If it hurts, don’t do it,’ she advises.
‘When you are pregnant, it feels wrong it probably is, so stop and take advice from your midwife, doctor or if you are a member of a gym or sports group speak to the trainers. You may not need to give up all exercise but you may be advised to alter your schedule or try some different activities.’
However, whether you exercise regularly already or are new to working out, there are usually at least a few pregnancy exercises that you can perform and enjoy comfortably.
‘It’s a great time to incorporate some core stability exercises and pelvic floor exercises to help with your recovery after the baby is born,’ Dr Dawn says.
‘If hand on heart you have been a bit of a couch potato, then pregnancy is not the time to start training for your first marathon, but it is a good time to look at your overall health and fitness. Even just a daily walk or incorporating a swim once or twice a week will make a difference. And exercise like yoga is really good for tone and posture.’
Exercises that should be avoided during pregnancy
The team at Active for 2 advise that the exercises that should be avoided altogether are contact sports like martial arts, football, rugby, squash and hockey, as these carry a risk of impact, and horse riding, cycling, skiing and gymnastics, due to risk of falling. Scuba diving is inadvisable for pregnant women, because you cannot protect your baby from associated risks such as decompression sickness or gas embolism, and so is Bikram Yoga, as experts agree that pregnant women should avoid raising their core body temperature to this degree.
You’ll also need to stop lying flat on your back for long periods, especially after 16 weeks, which can impact your ability to perform other exercises, such as crunches, to some degree. However, most workouts can be adapted so that you are lying on your side, or performing a different move which still has similar benefits.
You should always stop any exercise during any stage of your pregnancy if you experience pain, bleeding, dizziness, nausea, an abnormally elevated heart rate, or any other unusual symptoms such as lack of normal foetal movement, and seek immediate medical assistance.
The benefits of exercising during pregnancy
When you’ve found the pregnancy exercises that work best for you, you’re bound to feel the benefits.
‘Exercising in pregnancy is good for the mental and physical health of the mum to be,’ notes Dr Dawn. ‘Women who exercise regularly throughout pregnancy tend to have easier and less interventional labours and the best news of all is that regular exercise is good for the development of the unborn baby so it’s a win, win, win.’
Pregnancy exercises: What do the experts say about specific exercises?
Active for 2’s coaches give their top tips for the most common kinds of pregnancy exercise:
Running and walking during pregnancy
Running or walking during pregnancy can help with weight management and may speed up your post-birth recovery time. Running Coach Mel Bound believes that running and brisk walking also brings mental benefits, giving you the time and headspace to reconnect with your body and process the physical changes that take place during pregnancy.
Need to know
A few simple stretches before you go for a walk is a good idea to make sure that you don’t pull any muscles. Walking is a great exercise to do when you are towards the end of your pregnancy and other forms of exercise are difficult.
If you’re an experienced runner and are towards the end of your pregnancy, it’s advisable to scale back your routine in the later stages. Choose flatter terrains, aim for an even pace and avoid high-intensity runs unless you are working with a professional trainer who can advise you on the correct level for your body.
Yoga during pregnancy
Pregnancy yoga, as with many pregnancy exercises, may reduce lower back pain, tiredness and weight gain. For your baby it could result in a healthier heart rate and birth weight. Studies also show that prenatal yoga may even result in less labour pain, a shorter labour and a reduced risk of premature labour. Yet Yoga Coach Clare Maddalena believes it’s the mental benefits that mums feel the most; yoga gives them the time to come to terms with the many changes pregnancy brings, whilst readying themselves for labour.
Need to know
Let your yoga teacher know that you’re pregnant and if any of the positions are difficult or make you feel unwell, don’t do them. In a yoga class it can be easy to put pressure on yourself to do as much as other people, but this can do you more harm than good – just stick to what feels comfortable for you.
Remember to breathe continuously throughout your workout, and in your third trimester, don’t be afraid to to revert to gentler or more basic moves that better suit your growing body.
Swimming during pregnancy
Water-based exercises such as swimming and aquanatal classes may result in less pregnancy tiredness, a reduced risk of gestational diabetes and less pregnancy weight gain. For your baby, it could mean a healthier heart rate and birth weight. It may even help your baby’s brain to mature sooner.
The hydrostatic pressure of the water helps to reduce swelling, improve the circulatory and respiratory system and lower blood pressure. And because it’s low-impact, there’s minimal stress on the joints.
Need to know:
If you don’t like swimming lengths but you want a way to tone and flex your muscles, get a float or hold on to the side bar and do the same stretches you’d do at home or at an exercise class.
Breast stroke is a good swimming style because this opens and strengthens your chest, ready for when you need to control your breathing in labour. And it opens your hips and encourages flexibility of the pelvis. Remember to keep your back and neck straight – if you have difficulty, use a float under each arm or under your chest. Do as many lengths as you can but if you feel tired, stop. You can generally swim throughout pregnancy for as long as you feel able.
Strength training during pregnancy
Strength or resistance training may improve endurance in preparation for labour, decrease lower back and pelvic pain, and help you manage pregnancy weight gain. It can lead to a shorter hospital stay and fewer complications during labour and delivery, and the pelvic floor exercises, in particular, can reduce the chance of urinary incontinence during and after pregnancy. Strength Coach Pip Black also believes it helps you train for the physical side of being a mum – carrying a baby and lifting buggies and car seats can be hard work…
Need to know
The amount of strength training you’re able to do may depend on your skill level prior to your pregnancy.
Strength training comes in a number of different forms, from lifting weights to using resistance machines or bands. During the third trimester of your pregnancy, it’s advisable to reduce the intensity and include more moves you can do whilst seated or lying down – seek advice from a trainer if you’re concerned about overdoing things.