Exercising during Pregnancy has often been the subject of much debate and whilst nowadays it has become more 'acceptable' to see a pregnant lady exercising it is always a topic that seems to be a bit of a foreign concept to some people. The number of varying opinions out there makes it even more complicated for people to grasp what they should or should not be doing before, during and after pregnancy. With this in mind, I've put together a checklist of some things to bear in mind with exercise, nutrition and pregnancy.
Pregnancy, you & training
Whether you were active or led a pretty sedentary lifestyle before pregnancy, the good news is there is no time like the present to get started. First and foremost during and after your pregnancy it would always be wise to check with your doctor whether or not it's advisable for you to train or indeed if there is anything you should make your trainer aware of before starting sessions.
You've decided you're ready to have a baby. Fantastic news! Now think about the ways in which to best prepare your body for the next step. The first thing to think about and to look at is what you’re putting into your body. Your body needs the right nutrients to create a healthy and welcoming environment for your baby to live in over the next coming months. Optimising on unprocessed foods, and getting your intake of plenty of fruits, vegetables, proteins and healthy fats as well as vitamins is key. Ensuring that you are at a healthy bodyweight will help to make sure you’re giving you and your baby the best possible start.
Stress Levels in Preparation
Another thing to consider are your stress levels. Try and think of ways to monitor your stress and make more of the things that you know help calm you down, be it going for a run, swimming, yoga or being out and about seeing friends. In terms of exercise prior to pregnancy it would be advisable to create a good base in terms of strength, posture and cardio. For strength focus on areas that can assist in taking the load off your joints as your baby grows such as glutes, core and upper back. Working and building strength in the core and pelvic floor muscles will also be key during and after pregnancy.
Eat right and keep a healthy weight in check
As mentioned already when preparing for pregnancy, ensure that you're providing both you and your baby with the right nutrients at all times, whilst also bearing in mind that the saying eating for two is a little bit of an exaggeration and that in the early stages you only really need 150 more calories and then as the baby grows, an additional 300 a day.
Training - what should you be doing?
During pregnancy your body's natural alignment starts to pull anteriorly, the abdominal muscles start to pull forward along with the pelvis, and the hips tighten up. To help counterbalance this, strength training throughout the posterior chain is highly recommended. Exercises such as deadlifts and glute bridges are fantastic as well as helping to reverse the kyphosis that might occur through the spine due to the anterior pull. Back strengthening exercises such as cable rows, lateral pull downs and variations of these can also prove beneficial. In terms of core and pelvic floor training, creating a stable base is very important however there are certainly things that need to be avoided and to bear in mind. Whilst pelvic floor exercises should be done regularly in the build up, throughout and after pregnancy the risk of overdoing it is also quite significant and can lead to a more difficult birth if the muscles become too tight. Aim to engage your pelvic floor muscles for approx. 10 seconds and repeat 10 times, for optimal results aim for 3-4 sets on a daily basis. If you’re struggling to think of how to engage your pelvic floor, imagine you're trying to stop yourself from going to the bathroom...well that is pretty much it. Whilst engaging here, you should be doing this without pulling the abs above your belly button, squeezing your legs together, or squeezing your glutes.
Core, Core, Core
In terms of core work it is best to avoid exercises that let the belly bulge for too long, for example holding a full plank or push up position after the second to third trimester. It is also advisable to avoid exercises that put more pressure on the abdominals- staying clear of exercises such as sit ups and crunches, as well as incorporating too much torso rotation that can often exacerbate these areas. Exercises that I would recommend are ones that help to stabilise the spine and keep it in a neutral position, for example, stability ball roll outs, bird dog, cat cow, farmer's carry, straight arm pull down with single leg raise. As with the pelvic floor, over training the core can be dangerous, too much pressure and tightness can lead to tearing as the belly grows. Building the core from the deep stabilising muscles is imperative, rather than focusing solely on the rectus abdominus.
Cardio, High Intensity and Pregnancy
In terms of aerobic, high intensity and high impact work it is better to be cautious. This is not to say that if you were a keen runner before pregnancy you should cut it out altogether, but just monitor and assess how you are doing. Exercises such as jumping and any work that raises the heart rate very quickly should be avoided (I would recommend wearing a heart rate monitor throughout your training). This is because during pregnancy, balance can become challenged due to the shift in the centre of gravity. High impact can also cause further stress on the pelvic floor muscles, especially during the later stages of pregnancy. Exercises that would be advisable instead are swimming, cycling, strength training, gentle jogging/brisk walking and rowing.
I've had a baby! What now?!
Postnatal training first and foremost it depends entirely on you - how you are feeling and the kind of birth that you had. Your body has gone through a very unique experience and you have to make sure that not only are you physically ready but also are mentally ready. It would be always be advisable to speak to a medical expert before you are looking to return to exercise. Especially if you have had a C-section, I would always recommend getting complete clearance before training again.
I've been given the all clear to train and most importantly I feel ready!
I would always say to a client to try and work back up from the inside out, to start rebuilding, strengthening and stabilising the body throughout, especially as your relaxin levels can take several weeks to stabilise. If you have chosen to breastfeed then relaxin will remain in your system during this time. If a women has experienced diastasis recti it is particularly important to start rebuilding the abdominal muscles and in particular the transverse abdominus. Once again, in these circumstances, attempting to do 100 sit-ups straight after having the baby is not recommended. Be patient and rebuild, it may take a little more time but it's important to execute the retraining after birth with care, caution and correct form to not cause any longer term damage.
What’s happening to my body and what does it all mean?!
- Body weight tends to increase during pregnancy at around 10-15kg, which can increase stress on the joints, so counterbalancing this with frequent exercise is advisable.
- Bladder and bowel control can decrease during pregnancy, due to the effect of hormones taking over, causing a softening effect in preparation for the birth. Pelvic floor exercises are key - see above for the recommended amount of how much you should be doing.
- Your cardiac output tends to increase by around 30%-50% during pregnancy due to an increase in heart rate and also in stroke volume.
- Blood pressure can decrease because of the change in hormones and can cause the blood vessels to dilate, as well as expand circulation during pregnancy.
- As time progresses throughout the pregnancy, breathing requires more work due to elevation in the diaphragm.
- Hormones increase dramatically throughout pregnancy, these include: Human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), progesterone, oestrogen and relaxin. HCG can lead to a sensitive bladder, as well as nausea in the first trimester. Progesterone can cause symptoms such as heartburn, reflux, sore joints, weight gain, dizziness, constipation and fatigue. Oestrogen is vital for the progress of the baby and can promote blood flow. Alongside the other hormones, oestrogen levels can contribute to mood swings. Relaxin is a hormone produced to help relax the ligaments in preparation for childbirth. It peaks at around 12-14 weeks with levels tapering off gradually and then peaking again just before birth. Joint laxity may however create instability and pain in some cases as the body's alignment shifts. If you are breastfeeding relaxin will still be produced and will remain in your system.
- Gestational diabetes can develop during pregnancy due to hormones increasing a build up of sugar in the blood. To help regulate and decrease the chances of getting this, a healthy diet and exercise is highly recommended.
So why Exercise?
There is increasing evidence that suggest both mother and baby benefit enormously from exercise. Exercise can help improve muscle tone and strength as well as keep a healthy weight. In the case of gestational, exercise and good nutrition can help balance this. Studies have also shown that women who exercise on a regular basis during pregnancy can have shorter and less complicated labours. Exercise can also help to achieve a sense of wellbeing and balance. Your body is going through change and experiencing things it may never have experienced before. Exercise can help balance out situational depression that may occur due to a change in hormones and a change in life experience. Energy levels can also be helped with regular exercise.
Seek medical clearance, find someone who can guide you through a safe and effective training programme up until your birth, and most importantly keep a check at all times as to how you are doing, as with most things in life- one size does not fit all- find what is right and works best for you. Also be very aware that there is a-lot of conflicting advice out there as to what you should or should not be doing. Only you really know how you feel so be aware of what YOUR body is telling you and enjoy the process!
About the Author
Charlotte MacFarlane’s transition into fitness and conclusively becoming a PT started when she was aspiring to become an actress. Through having to constantly maintain an understanding of her body through movement and dance she discovered her love for fitness. She also has a qualification in pre natal and post natal exercise prescription.
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