“Karly” rushes in as I greet her at the exam room door. She’s a busy 23-year-old finishing her bachelor’s degree, working part-time as a medical assistant; she’s carrying her 8-month-old nephew in one arm while pushing a stroller with a bottom compartment holding two books and a diaper bag into the room. She is 18-weeks pregnant, healthy without any medical problems or complications. As she sits, letting out a sigh of relief, Karly says: “I feel fine, but my family says I’m on my feet too much. Is that right?”
This is a common scenario in this day and age of multitasking, independent women. A woman’s body undergoes natural adjustments throughout the 40 weeks of pregnancy to accommodate the growth of the baby; these changes can and will inevitably come with some growing pains. By maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle before, during and after pregnancy, these adjustments can be made smoother.
Pregnancy is a completely unique, occasionally stressful and always exciting state for your mind and body. This is no reason for alarm. Remember: Women’s bodies are specialized to carry pregnancies. Being pregnant doesn’t mean stopping all physical activity; in fact, maintaining an active and balanced life during your pregnancy journey benefits both mom and baby.
How Much and What Kind of Exercise Is Recommended?
For healthy pregnant and postpartum women, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines recommend “at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity.” What does this mean? Well, it equates to 30 minutes per day of almost any physical activity – five days a week. If you already routinely engage in vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (such as running or jogging) or are highly active, the guidelines state that you can continue during and immediately after your pregnancy. Of course, we always reinforce that this guidance depends on the fact that your pregnancy is uncomplicated and that you check in regularly with your provider about your exercise regimen.
A growing body of research is demonstrating that there are many advantages for pregnant women who exercise. Even if you weren’t in the gym or active before pregnancy, taking up an exercise routine as simple as walking 30 minutes a day, five times a week, can have many benefits, including: reduced lower back and pelvic pain by keeping your muscles conditioned, relief from constipation, reduced fatigue, decreased risk of developing gestational diabetes, lower blood pressure to help prevent preeclampsia, reduced risk of delivery complications like an unplanned cesarean section and a quicker postpartum recovery.
When starting an exercise routine in pregnancy, common sense is the name of the game. You should always discuss and plan a routine with your provider’s guidance first. Regardless of whether or not you were exercising before pregnancy, if you are otherwise healthy and have not had complications, any non-contact exercise that activates your muscles and increases your heart rate can be taken on. Below is a list of safe activities from the American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology:
● Indoor/stationary cycling
● Group dance classes
● Low-impact aerobics
● Prenatal yoga
● Strength training*
● Racquet sports*
*Speak with your provider first
Activities that are considered contact sports – such as basketball, soccer, hockey and boxing – should be avoided in pregnancy. Additionally, avoid any activity with a high risk of falling, as well as scuba diving, sky diving, and “hot” yoga or pilates.
Listen to Your Body
Pregnancy is a unique state for the body that can be stressful. If you start to feel dizzy, lightheaded or winded, take a break and slow down. High-intensity exercises like running or jogging for more than 45 minutes can lead to low sugar levels that affect mom and baby. Limiting the length of your exercise sessions to 30 minutes is ideal.
Hydration is extremely important, especially during pregnancy. Always keep a water bottle with you, and exercise in a cool environment, preferably air-conditioned.
If you experience vaginal bleeding, leakage of clear watery fluid, pain or contractions, or don’t feel your baby moving (when you’re over 20 to 22 weeks), you should seek medical assistance immediately.
Pick an activity you like, and exercise with a family member or friend. They can help keep you active and assist you when it’s time for a breather.
So if you’re already a busy body, check in with your provider, and keep going. And even if you’re not, pregnancy is great opportunity to take charge of your health while also improving the health of your future baby through a balanced diet and exercise routine.
Melissa Walsh, MD, FACOG, is a board-certified OB-GYN in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Women’s Health at Montefiore Health System and assistant professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Women’s Health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Dr. Walsh received her B.S. at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education at the City College of New York, an accelerated B.S./M.D. program that addresses the continuing shortage of primary care physicians. She attended New York Medical College for her M.D. degree and completed residency at Montefiore Medical Center. During residency, she participated in clinical science research to assess the efficacy of obstetrical emergency simulation training for rural Rwandan nurses and midwives. She has continued her career at Montefiore Medical Center as a primary care physician helping to extend care to underserved populations.