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Physical activity in pregnancy

Pregnancy can be a time of conflicting messages about what you should and shouldn't be doing for the health of your unborn baby and this includes the subject of physical activity. The fact is that being physically active during your pregnancy can have many benefits for both you and your baby. Currently, only about 30% of women of childbearing age appear to fulfil the recommendations of doing 30 minutes or more of moderate physical activity on at least 5 days of the week, so it’s likely that many pregnant women are also inactive.

Exercise during pregnancy is always a hot topic on online discussions as to what type of exercises you can do, at what stages of pregnancy you can do them and how strenuous should it be? It is important to remember that during pregnancy there are changes in your body that affect how it functions when you are physically active, it is for this reason that you must consult with your doctor or midwife about what activities are suitable for you before continuing the activities you took part in before falling pregnant or embarking on a new exercise regime.

The benefits of physical activity during pregnancy

It is well known that regular physical activity can help to reduce the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and depression and this remains the case when pregnant. Additional benefits during pregnancy include an improved state of fitness, a reduction in muscle cramps and swelling in the legs and feet. There is also a link between women who exercise during pregnancy having a shorter labour time than those who do not.

Even if you were not active before pregnancy, doing some activity during pregnancy can be beneficial. The recommendations from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists are to begin with 15 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise, three times a week, and to gradually increase this to 30 minute sessions four times a week or more if you had low levels of activity before your pregnancy. Exercise sessions should be preceded with a warm up and followed by a cool down. If you were very active and fit before pregnancy then you should be able to continue with your programme of activity within reason, but should expect your fitness and activity levels decrease as your pregnancy progresses.

Staying safe

The changes your body goes through whilst pregnant means you must be more cautious with some activities and avoid others altogether. It is advised to steer clear of contact sports and only partake in weight bearing exercise if overseen by registered health professional. This is because there is a change in hormones during pregnancy which causes the joints to be more mobile than usual, increasing the risk of injury. After 16 weeks of pregnancy it is advised to stop any exercises which involve lying on your back, due to the womb putting pressure on one of the large veins when in this position.

You are more likely to get too hot during exercise when you are pregnant and this can be dangerous for your baby so it is also important not to exercise in hot humid conditions and to keep well hydrated during exercise so make sure you drink before, during and after exercise. It is important to eat something containing a source of starchy carbohydrates (such as bread, pasta or potatoes) about 2 hours before exercising to prevent your blood sugar levels from dropping too low and never exercise for more than 45 minutes at a time.

Activities that work for you

Within most areas of the country there are antenatal exercise classes available where you can meet up with other pregnant women and share your stories of pregnancy and offer support to one another, this may help in keeping you motivated to carry on exercising through your pregnancy. Some examples of antenatal classes include yoga, aquanatal (in a swimming pool) and active birth (a form of yoga that helps prepare you for labour). If you would rather go it alone then there are plenty of other options such as walking, jogging, swimming or just dancing around the room to your favourite music! If you go to a gym, then make sure you tell your trainer that you are pregnant and check that they are qualified to offer advice to pregnant women, Pregnancy is a great opportunity for you to maintain or start being physically active and make it become a habit so that once your baby is born you can continue exercising, which could help to shift that post pregnancy weight.

Further reading

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists – Statement on exercise in pregnancy

Last reviewed 19/12/2011. Next due for review 19/12/2014