How to Safely Exercise While Pregnant

An OB-GYN shares how exercise can be beneficial for pregnant people’s physical and mental health.

Pregnancy is a time to take extra care of your body by eating well, getting enough sleep, and going for regular wellness checkups. Adding regular exercise to that list is not only safe in most cases, but is also beneficial to your physical and mental health, pregnancy, and even the labor and delivery process.

“In pregnancy, achieving about 120 to 150 minutes of physical exercise per week is great for your general health, heart health, managing your weight, and promoting a healthy level of mobility during pregnancy,” says Dr. Cassandra Simmons, chief of the Division of General Obstetrics & Gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester and NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Engaging in physical exercise can reduce the risk of gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. Studies show that in some cases, it can reduce the chance of cesarean section, preterm birth, and shorten the duration of labor.”

Be sure to check with your OB-GYN first about whether exercise is safe for you before starting a new routine. They can provide guidance based on your health, fitness level, and any risk factors.

Dr. Simmons shared with Health Matters the health benefits of exercise during pregnancy, which exercises are safe, and which ones to avoid.

Dr. Cassandra Simmons

Dr. Cassandra Simmons

Embrace exercise for its mood and energy boosts.

Pregnancy can bring about hormonal changes that may lead to mood fluctuation and fatigue, says Dr. Simmons. “Endorphins that are released during exercise are substantially beneficial for the emotional changes that can occur during pregnancy,” she says. Regular exercise also increases energy levels. Whether it’s a brisk walk, a swim, or prenatal yoga, finding an activity you enjoy can do wonders for your overall well-being.

Adapt your workouts.

If you are someone who exercised before pregnancy and have a pregnancy that is not high-risk, keep it up if it feels good, advises Dr. Simmons. “If you were a runner and want to continue to run, you absolutely can,” she says. “If you have previously been weight training, the easiest trimesters to continue your weight training are the first and second trimesters. Just be very cautious about the amount of weight that you’re bearing during workouts or occupational activities. As a general guide, if you continue to bear weight during pregnancy, limit the weight to 40 pounds in the first and second trimesters, and 25 pounds in the third trimester; you don’t want to injure yourself.”

As time goes on, you may have to change some routines to accommodate things like nausea, low energy, or discomfort around your pelvic region. Your body is going through hormonal and physical changes, so it makes sense to adapt the way you exercise.

Dr. Simmons has the following suggestions, depending on which trimester you’re in:

First and second trimesters: If you do not have a high-risk pregnancy, you can continue with most exercises you were doing before. If you are experiencing nausea or low energy, reduce intensity levels. Maybe you can’t go for a five-mile run like you used to, but you can run for two. Above all, listen to your body and do what feels comfortable, says Dr. Simmons.

  • Safe Exercises: Running, walking, swimming, stationary cycling, modified weight training, aerobics
  • Exercises to avoid: Contact sports which can put you at risk for getting hit in the belly like basketball, kickboxing, or soccer. “This is especially important during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, when the growing uterus is ’showing,’ therefore more prone to injury if substantial contact were to occur,” says Dr. Simmons.

Third trimester: Due to the reproductive hormone relaxin, your muscles, pelvis, and joints are more relaxed and loosened. This prepares your body for childbirth, but it also can lead to joint instability. Your center of gravity also changes during the third trimester and can affect your balance. This is the time when you should be more conscientious about certain activities that might harm you or your baby.

  • Safe Exercises: Prenatal yoga, Pilates, swimming, walking, low-impact aerobics
  • Exercises to avoid: In addition to the contact sports mentioned above, spinal twists, lying flat on your back, high-intensity sports, and anything that increases your risk of falling, like downhill skiing and horseback riding.

Be mindful of your lower back.

Pregnancy can come with its share of aches and pains, especially in the lower back. As you approach your third trimester, your center of gravity shifts due to your growing belly. This slight curvature in the spine, called lordosis, may make it harder to do exercises that you’ve done in the past, explains Dr. Simmons. Instead, opt for exercises that provide stability, such as swimming or stationary cycling.

Avoid lying flat on your back as well. For pregnant people, this compresses a major blood vessel, and may cause dizziness and limit blood flow to the uterus. Any exercises where you are lying flat on your back should be avoided after the first trimester.

Don’t start an intense exercise regimen if you aren’t used to it.

Your body needs to adjust to the hormonal changes and metabolic demands of a pregnancy. “What I tell my patients who have not previously been exercising, is that your body is actually ‘working out’ when you’re pregnant because of the demands on your metabolism to support your growing baby. It’s advisable during pregnancy to maintain your current levels of exercise if comfortable, or when initiating a new regimen to do so slowly as your body adjusts to its new requirements for energy.”

You can use exercise to prepare for labor.

Staying active helps build endurance and strength, essential components for navigating the challenges of labor and delivery. Kegel exercises and squats target the pelvic floor muscles which can aid in a smoother birthing process. “Pregnancy Pilates and yoga are a great way to prepare your body for the baby’s descent into the pelvis and also mimic some of the breathing techniques that you can use during labor,” adds Dr. Simmons, though avoid hot yoga and hot Pilates.

Post-birth exercise is just as critical.

Exercise is important during the postpartum period, known as the 4th trimester. Exercise can strengthen your abdominal muscles and help alleviate symptoms of stress and postpartum depression. “Remember, your mental health can be in a precarious state. Keeping yourself mobile and exercising is important,” says Dr. Simmons. For a normal vaginal delivery, you can start exercising a few days after birth or when you feel ready. If you had a cesarean or complications, check with your OB-GYN.

Do what feels comfortable for you and your pregnancy.

Your body is going through significant changes. Pay attention to its signals. If you feel tired, dizzy, or experience discomfort, it’s time to rest.

“Exercise is a personal choice during your pregnancy,” says Dr. Simmons. “If you feel that exercise should be a part of it and you feel comfortable continuing to exercise, from the physician’s standpoint we encourage you to continue to reap the benefits of physical activity during pregnancy. But if you have hesitations around exercise while pregnant, you should do what feels comfortable.”

Additional Resources

Cassandra Blot Simmons, M.D., is chief of the Division of General Obstetrics & Gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester and NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She is also an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Simmons specializes in women’s gynecological health and obstetrics care before, during, and after pregnancy.

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