Exercise in Pregnancy – What is Safe and What You Should Avoid

Libby O'Sullivan

The word has spread that exercising during pregnancy is not only safe but beneficial for both mum and bub. This is great news!

Many of us know exercising in pregnancy keeps us fit and stops us from putting on more weight than we need to, but the research tells us that it also:

  • may increase post-natal recovery time
  • can reduce risk of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia
  • may reduce caesarian deliveries
  • lower chances or severity of depression and anxiety
  • minimise back pain

As well as all of these wonderful benefits, there is no evidence in uncomplicated pregnancies that exercise increases the risk of miscarriage, birth defects, poor fetal growth or early labour.

So to make sure you’re getting the most our of these great benefits, let’s dig a bit deeper on the what and how of it all.

How much exercise should you do during pregnancy?

International guidelines* recommend that pregnant women do 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise, over at least 3 sessions (eg. 30mins, 5 days/week)

Moderate intensity just means something that gets you a bit short of breath and a bit sweaty (i.e you should still be able to talk but probably not belt out a tune!)

What type of exercise should you do during pregnancy?

Safe exercise

It is often surprising to women how many different types of exercise they can actually do during pregnancy! Anything that gets you a bit breathless and sweaty is great, but a mix of cardio and resistance is ideal.

You could try:

  • going for a brisk walk
  • swimming some laps
  • doing a fast paced circuit session using light weights/bands
  • jumping on the stationary bike at the gym
  • doing a yoga or Pilates class that has been modified for pregnancy

* Keep in mind that this is a general list and it is always a good idea to run your exercise plans past your obstetric care provider (eg ostetrician, physio).

With Caution

Running, strength training & tennis

I am often asked about running during pregnancy (especially in my hardcore runners who are terrified that they will have to give it up!)

The research tells us that running, strength training and racquet sports like tennis are most likely safe for pregnant women who were already doing them regularly prior to their pregnancy.

Even though these exercises might be safe, we can’t deny the fact that they can place extra demand/strain on our joints and pelvic floor (which is already under more load), so it’s still worth discussing with your physio / OBS whether you SHOULD do them just because you CAN… Often we will make a plan together, weighing up things like any existing injuries and pelvic floor dysfunction with the mental health and physical benefits.

Lying on your back

Most pregnant women know they shouldn’t sleep on their back. It’s true that in 10-20% of pregnant women, these positions can affect blood flow to the baby (through reduced venous return and hypotension). So we should also take caution exercising with these positions, especially in the second half of pregnancy.

Abdominal exercises

There are no hard and fast rules with abdominal exercises, because everyone’s ability to regular the pressure in their abdomen varies. Whilst it is normal for the abdominals to separate during pregnancy (see my post https://www.glowphysio.com.au/blog/7-myths-abdominal-separation/), we try to avoid exercises that cause ‘doming’ down the middle of the abdominal wall.

For most women, this means sit ups, planks and oblique twists are out. For others, even a side plank or kneeling push up can cause doming so individual assessment is important!

What type of exercise should you avoid during pregnancy?

There are so many you things you can still do during pregnancy, but there are still some definite no-no’s. These are mostly things that involve an increased risk of falling or a risk of impact to your tummy (which is why I advised one of my 36wk pregnant clients the other day that riding her bike to Pilates wasn’t a great idea!)

In a nutshell, pregnancy is NOT the time to take up:

  • Contact sports like boxing, soccer, basketball
  • Skiing, water skiing, road or mountain biking, horse riding
  • Scuba diving or sky diving
  • Hot Yoga or Hot Pilates

Should you get help?

If you are a healthy woman having an uncomplicated pregnancy, very little extra guidance is needed to continue exercising safely when you factor in the recommendations above. 

That being said, most women find comfort and confidence in being individually assessed by a physiotherapist who has extra training in treating pregnant women because you can develop a plan for exercise together with confidence.

If you are a woman with pregnancy complications, an injury or other health concerns, your team (obstetrician / GP / midwife / Physiotherapist etc) can work together to make sure you’re getting the most benefit from exercise possible without putting you or your bub at risk.

References

*ACOG, Physical Activity and Exercise During Pregnancy and the Postpartum Period[online], Washington DC, published December 2015, viewed March 2020, https://www.acog.org/Clinical-Guidance-and-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Obstetric-Practice/Physical-Activity-and-Exercise-During-Pregnancy-and-the-Postpartum-Period?IsMobileSet=false

It’s one of our favourite things to help women stay strong and fit during their pregnancies, so if you would like some guidance in starting or continuing exercise during your pregnancy, please get in touch!