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The Common-Sense Approach to Exercise During Pregnancy

Jan19

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Pregnancy Exercise

Advice Smackdown ArchivesDear Amalah,

I’m a huge fan of your blog and of the Advice Smackdown! I’ve found quite a few useful tips over the years (hurrah for dry shampoo!) and I have to say I am especially a fan of your common sense advice related to pregnancy do’s and dont’s.

I have a question related to exercise during pregnancy. I am usually quite active and work out 4-5 times a week (hiking, running, spinning, kickboxing, step, hot yoga). During my first pregnancy, I felt so terrible during the first few months that I stopped exercising completely and pretty much lived on the couch. Then when I started to feel better, I followed what the books said…I avoided strenuous cardio and didn’t really do anything except walking and pre-natal yoga (which consisted of a lot of talking about our feelings and not a lot of actual exercise). After the baby was born, it took me a long time to bounce back and I really had wished that I had continued to exercise more. I’m also convinced I would have felt better during my pregnancy.

I just found out that I’m pregnant again (yah!) and am hoping to do things differently this time. I would like to push myself (within limits) to continue most of my activities even if I am not feeling well at the beginning (except for running since I live in Canada and it’s winter and hot yoga which seems to definitely be a no-no) in hopes that I will be able to stay more fit during the whole pregnancy and have less back pain, etc. I am finding conflicting advise as to what activities are “safe” and how much exercise is okay. How are you staying fit during this pregnancy? What’s your take on acceptable activities/levels of exertion?

Thanks!
Isabelle

So forgive me for possibly glossing over the whole “how are YOU staying fit during this pregnancy” part, because…uh…unless you count dancing games on the Wii and xBox Kinnect, the majority of my physical activities involve wrangling two very active older children who still demand to be picked up and carried around places. (I also have the OH POOR THING, SHUT UP NOW problem of not being able to gain [and then keep] even the barest amount of necessary pregnancy weight, thanks to bouts of illnesses and a metabolism that has apparently lost its damn mind. So anything that burns a significant amount of calories has not been super-advised for me, at least not right now, at the halfway point, with my weight gain technically in the negative and my appetite being pretty hit-or-miss.)

But! Here’s what I have read and been told by my doctor about exercise and pregnancy. You’re right, there’s very conflicting stuff out there, much like every “is it safe?” question that needs a heavy dose of cover-your-ass-ness. (For example, you get the okay for such-and-such activity and then you miscarry and blame the activity, correctly or incorrectly.) I think it’s really, truly a question of each individual pregnant woman knowing both her limits AND her body, AND (most importantly) paying attention to the CHANGES in her body that take place and being constantly willing to revise her routine and choice of activities.

Things to flat-out avoid:

1) Activities with a high likelihood of falls or rough physical contact. This eliminates stuff like…downhill skiing. Rollerblading. Most team sports like soccer or hockey. Rock climbing. I’m sure some sites or even doctors would include bike riding or hiking here, even though I think those are definitely a gray areas, provided that mom employs some essential common sense. Not all hiking is exxxtreme hikes up rough terrain in high altitudes and severe weather. I think hiking on an established, non-rocky trail around your local park would be just fine, provided you stay hydrated and comfortable in the weather, and generally feel all-around good and steady on your feet and keep the hike length reasonable, with resting points as needed. Same with bike riding, though if you find yourself getting woozy or off-balance as the pregnancy progresses, it’s probably a good idea to switch to an indoor stationary bike that you can GET OFF OF the second you start to feel not-great (without worrying about how you’re supposed to get back to your starting point or something).

2) Activities with a full-on weight loss bent. This is kind of a DUH, and could technically include even the most innocuous home workout video, but is important. Calories in, calories out. Don’t embark on any fitness routine while pregnant without a good, working knowledge of how many calories you’re burning. This is another reason pregnant women are advised to take it relatively easy until AFTER morning sickness subsides, so you can more easily replenish those calories without barfing them back up.

3) Activities that push you past the point of comfortable exertion. And this one? Totally personal and subjective. Everybody has a different point when they get out of breath or cramps or muscles turning to jelly. But when you’re pregnant, you want to STEER CLEAR of this point. When you say you’re looking to “push yourself,” this is where I have to scrunch up my nose a little and ask that you dial back on that goal, because pregnancy is not the time to start training for the triathlon or start bench-pressing extra weight, or do anything that includes someone screaming NO PAIN NO GAIN at you like a Biggest Loser contestant. A good rule of thumb is that if YOU’RE uncomfortable or in pain, chances are the baby isn’t feeling super great either. I usually see this rule mentioned when women are freaking out online about sleeping positions and what ones could “hurt” the baby, but I think it’s true for any physical activity. If you’re gasping for air, it stands to reason that your womb isn’t getting enough oxygen either.

So if you feel like crap for any reason, immediately take some steps to not feel like crap. Eat something for your blood sugar, drink some water, lie down and put your feet up, do some breathing exercises to curb feelings of anxiety…or you know, just simply excuse yourself from the exercise class once you realize that maybe you aren’t up to it that day, after all. This doesn’t mean that whatever you were doing was TERRIBLE and you MONSTER and you’ve caused IRREPARABLE HARM (because honestly, it could just as easily have been lugging a load of laundry upstairs as an exercise class, pregnancy is WEIRD)…it just means…stop. For now. Take a break. Reassess.

4) Activities that involve lying flat on your back or lifting weights over your head, particularly in the second and third trimester. This comes courtesy of the American Pregnancy Association’s exercise guidelines, which I think are overall, pretty reasonable. They don’t go into super-specific details about exactly what types of exercise programs are okay, but I think if you run through their guidelines to test out anything specific you’re considering, you’ll come up with a good answer on your own.

As for ways to make the activities you DO deem okay as “safe” as possible, here are my suggestions:

1) Go to the bookstore. Check out the pregnancy section for books and videos. I know there are at least a couple great guides out there for pregnant runners, for example, and MUCH better prenatal yoga and fitness regimens than the touchy-feely one you tried. You might just want to steer clear of the group classes that aren’t geared for someone of your pre-pregnancy fitness level and come up with something on your own, using YOUR best judgment and sense of YOUR body and what it’s currently capable of.

2) If you do go for a group class, make sure the instructor knows you’re pregnant. Find out if they could possibly offer some modified moves throughout the class for you, a la the “beginner” and “advanced” moves a lot of exercise videos offer. If there’s an instructor or trainer at your gym who has either been pregnant or specializes in pregnancy fitness, make them your new best friend and have them help you put together a good custom workout with a focus on back strength and keeping ab muscles in shape without crunches or other back-lying no-nos. Most gyms will have someone who can do this, and would be thrilled to help you stay in shape safely.

3) Pay attention to the ch-ch-ch-changes. I know I’ve said about a dozen variations on this already, but it’s just that important. As your baby grows and your uterus expands, stuff just HAPPENS. Your lung capacity can get diminished. Your blood sugar can go haywire. Your center of gravity can change almost overnight. So reassess, reassess, reassess. (Just last night I stood up off the couch to put on an xBox sports game…only to black completely out for no apparent reason. I was hydrated, well-fed, feeling just fine…and yet the next thing I knew I was flat on the ground. Needless to say, I opted to take it easy instead of playing the game, even though I honestly have NO idea why that happened.)

Take advantage of that sweet spot in the second trimester when you feel great and aren’t very big yet, but be realistic about your ability to keep up that level of activity for more than a few months. You sound like someone who is very in touch with her body and what it needs to feel good, so BELIEVE in that ability and don’t second-guess yourself, in either direction. If you feel like you can handle a kickboxing class? Go for the kickboxing class! If you need to call it quits halfway through because something just doesn’t feel “right”…trust that instinct too, and stop. (But then refuse to feel guilty for trying.)

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If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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21 Responses to “The Common-Sense Approach to Exercise During Pregnancy”

  1. Jessica Jan 19 at 7:57 pm Reply Reply

    As a first trimester-er also trying to get into shape, who also was a total slug her first pregnancy and regretted it, I’ve looked into this a bit recently. I agree with everything above. The one other hint I’ve read is that since you become more flexible during pregnancy, it is important to not accidently “over stretch” since you can easily injure yourself (i.e. during yoga). You should not push yourself past your pre-pregnancy range of motion, even if you now find that you theoretically could.

  2. Michele Jan 19 at 7:57 pm Reply Reply

    I did weight training and worked out with a trainer before and during my (twins) pregnancy. Doctor told me to decrease the weights and intensity, but I could continue to work out as long as I was still feeling good. I had no complications to speak of during the pregnancy, so I worked out until 33 weeks. My trainer knocked down the intensity by 50% and the amount of weight I was using by 10-15 lbs per exercise. Having him around was helpful, because he would modify the workout on the fly if he saw I was getting winded. As I got bigger (and I mean BIGGER), the workouts decreased in intensity and focused more on mobility and balance.

    My lifts that were normally done laying down were modified to be on an incline, but otherwise I was still doing similar workouts to the ones I did before I was pregnant. Only a handful of exercises were completely cut out of my routines, and they were replaced by exercises that used resistance bands and body weight. I credit that work to helping me with balance and carrying the extra weight without back or knee trouble.

    Advice- talk with your doctor. If you work with a trainer or instructor, talk with them about how your workouts can be modified to get you the benefits you are looking for. Unfortunately, now is not the time to start something new, but to basically do maintenance work until the baby is born.

  3. Kate Jan 19 at 8:25 pm Reply Reply

    I did a pre-natal water aerobics class twice a week at the local Y from about week 12 to week 36 of my pregnancy, and I can’t recommend a class like that highly enough during pregnancy. It was a great work out but felt safe and not too strenuous, and was a great way to bond with other pregnant women. I also continued doing a tai chi class once a week, and that was a great way to help with strength and balance and keep in touch with the changes my body was going through. I really think the combination helped me to get into the best shape of my life by the end of the pregnancy, meaning I felt really strong during labor and was able to bounce back quickly from giving birth.

  4. Samantha Jan 19 at 10:33 pm Reply Reply

    Swimming! It’s wonderful for exercise without over-exertion. I know it is cold, but most indoor pools are heated. If you don’t want to swim laps, water aerobics are nice. You stay in the shallow end where you can stand. Also, don’t underestimate plain old walking. I took a walk around the block everyday when I was pregnant, and that worked great for me. I would have gone completely stir crazy to be stuck inside on the couch all the time.

  5. Juliet Jan 20 at 3:38 am Reply Reply

    I’ve been thinking about pregnancy of late, and as a climber, and someone who uses her bike as transport on a daily basis, I’ve looked into both of those quite a bit.

    With the cycling: yeah, unless you’re having specific balance issues (or otherwise start getting uncomfortable), it would be way overkill to avoid cycling.  Falling off a bike is pretty damn unlikely – going up and down the stairs when you can’t see your feet is probably about as risky!  I’ve known plenty of women cycle right up to full term and at least one woman who found cycling way easier and more comfortable than walking for getting around.

    Climbing is a bit more controversial, but in roped climbing, you should never actually fall any significant distance – that’s what the rope & harness are for.  It’s probably not a sport to take up seriously during pregnancy :) but if you’re already a climber, you can take a few precautions to minimise risk.  Use a full-body harness when the bump won’t fit in your regular one; probably best to avoid leading a route (risk of longer drops); consider climbing within your ability rather than pushing it.  If you do bouldering (low-height, but no rope, so short falls are a normal part of it), stick *well* within your abilities, down-climb rather than jumping down, and stick to traversing rather than going up as your pregnancy progresses (I’ve seen “from second trimester” suggested there).  A good friend and long-term serious climber went on a climbing holiday at 6 months without problems, and I’ve seen pregnant women climbing at my rock gym.  Obviously, if you start feeling uncomfortable, stop & reevaluate, like Amy says here.  

    I guess a lot of this is, like many things in life, about risk management & what you’re comfortable with in different areas; so absolutely women should listen to their bodies and make their own decisions about what’s going to be best all round for them + baby.

  6. pseudostoops Jan 20 at 9:46 am Reply Reply

    I’m 33 weeks now, and have stayed pretty active. In the first trimester I stuck mostly with my regular activities with the intensity dialed back- walking breaks during my runs, lower weights, that kind of thing. As I started to get bigger and into the second trimester, I switched mostly to walking instead of running (the running was hurting my back and hips, so I stopped- this speaks to Amy’s “reassess” point) and to prenatal workout videos. Like Kate, doing something that was designated as prenatal really helped me feel safe and comfortable, but I was still “pushing” myself- not getting winded, but actually using my muscles. I highly recommend the “perfect pregnancy workout” dvds and Summer Saunders’ pregnancy workout dvd. Both have been great for me.

  7. SarahB Jan 20 at 9:48 am Reply Reply

    Thank you, thank you!

    BabyCenter included a big article on exercise during the 11 week update, and I was like, “Really?  Exercise?  How about reassuring me I will feel like getting up off the couch and, oh, doing some mild swiffering in a week or so?”  Here’s hoping I’ll feel like doing something during second trimester.

    On the other end, one of our friends ran a competitive 10-miler during her second trimester.  She’s normally a marathon runner and in great shape.  More power to her and anyone who’s already coming into pregnancy in good shape!

  8. liz Jan 20 at 9:53 am Reply Reply

    I highly recommend Hawaiian Dance if there is a class in your area. It’s body-positive, low-impact, works your back, thigh, and stomach muscles, and makes you feel graceful.

    If there isn’t a class in your area, try this DVD on Basic Hula.

  9. Therese Jan 20 at 10:09 am Reply Reply

    Pregnancy isn’t the best time to start something new but if you are already pretty active, check to see if there is Pure Barre studio in your area. It’s a combo of ballet, pilates, strength building… I started this to get in shape after my 1st child was born and have been able to continue (I’m currently 28 weeks along in pregnancy #2). Like the original poster, I didn’t do a whole lot during my first pregnancy although I had previously been quite active and didn’t want to repeat that this time. I found the hardest time to exercise was the 1st trimester due to the fatique and constant nasuea. As I enter the 3rd trimester, I am having to modify more (the instructors help with that) but overall am able to complete the full workout with no problem. Like Amy said, I just have to listen to my body. If it hurts, I’m too winded, or just not “feeling” it, I take a break. On a seperate note, I am finding the mental/emotional benefit to the exercise as much if not more useful than the physical benefit at this point.

  10. Jenn Jan 20 at 11:26 am Reply Reply

    I’ve been a yoga devotee for years. When I got pregnant with my son, I asked my doctor about it – she asked me how long I’d been practicing yoga. When I told her something like six or seven years, she told me there was no reason to stop. She said she would have cautioned me differently if I would have expressed an interest in starting a NEW workout routine, but that I could (and should!) continue on with my current routine, for as long as I was comfortable. Her caveats were to pay attention to your body (and as a yoga student, this is something you’re most likely doing anyway!), and nothing inverted (so no shoulder stands here!). When I talked to my yoga teacher, her advice was the same – no inversion, and don’t push my limits. My instructor was also a queen at giving me quick modifications if she thought something so much as *might* make me even a little uncomfortable.

    End result for me? I went to my weekly yoga class until 37 weeks (and the idea of “fold at the waist” just became completely absurd!) I gained a total of 27 lbs during my pregnancy, and was able to begin with some very gentle stretching again at about 4 weeks postpartum. (I could also zip my pre-pregnancy jeans comfortably at this point). I’m also convinced that the stretching and breathing you do in a yoga class is helpful for focusing and pushing during labor and delivery!

    Best wishes to you!!

  11. sarah Jan 20 at 1:00 pm Reply Reply

    I LOVED my aquamoms class! Being in the water was so much more comfortable than being on land. I did the yoga too, and like you, didn’t feel it was much of a workout. I loved both the summer sanders and perfect pregnancy workout DVDs. I did a 1/2 marathon @ 12 weeks and swam laps right up until the week I had my baby. Didn’t bounce back from pregnancy as well as I would have liked, but sailed through 36 hours of labor without an epidural.

  12. Sarah Jan 20 at 1:19 pm Reply Reply

    Also, a word about back pain. I was worried about this as I got farther into my pregnancy, I didn’t gain a ton of weight overall (22 lb.) but I had large breasts to start with and they got larger, coupled with an expanding belly I was begining to feel achey. I started seeing my husbands chiropractor at about 7 months and continued to see him 3 times a week until I delivered. Many people think that you can’t visit a chiropractor during pregnancy when it actually is very possible and some studies have shown that chiropractic care during pregnancy can lead to shorter and less complicated births. My back felt better, I was sleeping confortably and for long periods and I did in fact deliver my first child only 6 hours after my water broke at home. Chiropractic might not be for everyone but I think it is definitely something to consider. I now visit about 2-3 times a month and won’t think twice about continuing care when I get pregnant again. Good Luck!

  13. Pogita Jan 20 at 2:27 pm Reply Reply

    I did pre-natal yoga until five days before my baby was born. I also walked the mile to and from work as often as I could. Baby was posterior at 36 weeks so I added what I referred to as whale-swim-walking. Baby turned and I had an easy four hour labor and delivery with no drugs. Yay. Coming back was really hard though. Finding the time seems next to impossible. Plus even though the “baby” is 18 months old now, I am still exhausted by 5:00. Stupid full-time job….

  14. Jasmine Jan 20 at 4:16 pm Reply Reply

    Swimming. Really. Get deep enough for water to be at your chest, and tread water – if you can’t swim, just walk while submerged. The water resistance gives a good workout and keeps the body under cover… I go swim-jogging because I really can’t float, and I am prone to back cramps, hamstrings and sore ankles…

  15. Julie Jan 20 at 5:17 pm Reply Reply

    There are some really good prenatal exercise classes out there. The one I’m taking I’ll link to, because she has some good articles on safe pilates work prenatal and postpartum. http://www.debragoodman.com/debras_bio.html

    The main thing she has stressed to us is that during pregnancy, you don’t want to do anything that puts strain on certain abdominal muscles, because that can make the natural gaping that happens during pregnancy worse. So no crunches, no exercises that involve lifting both legs off the floor using the abdominal muscles, and nothing that strais the obliques (twisting crunches). One of the things that includes is that you shouldn’t go directly from laying on your back to sitting up – roll to a side laying position first, then push yourself up. Same for laying back down.

  16. eva Jan 21 at 10:33 am Reply Reply

    Throughout both pregnancies I was super active, and found that even when I felt like ass, getting out there and raising my heart rate always made me feel better.  I did a lot of hiking, snowshoeing (yay Canada), running until 20 weeks, and prenatal yoga.  And really my pace didn’t slow too much, just when I hiked I only carried my 25 lb toddler in the ergo until five and a half months:)  I say if you’re active before pregnancy there is absolutely no reason not to continue with what you can handle (minus the crazy weight lifting, sit ups, contact sports etc).  It really helped me bounce back to my pre-preggers body quickly after my c-sections, and not getting HUGE helped me feel confident about working out after the babies were born, if that makes sense.

  17. Jen Jan 21 at 11:55 am Reply Reply

    I basically continued to participate in everything that I was currently doing – my doctor just told me to listen to MY body, not the books.  I am the only one who knows what I should and shouldn’t be doing.  And actually, my husband and I bought a house, completely renovated the house, and moved everything in…closed on the house on March 18, moved in May 17…AND, because he was doing so much of the painting, EVERYTHING (not lying) that wasn’t a two person lift of furniture, was moved by me.  Towards the end I had a hard time carrying things because my stomach was in my way!  My baby was born at the beginning of August, and one week before she came I had just spent a week working at my job – outside in the heat at the climax of our year, the county fair – 90+ hours….and my dr. was standing by me the whole time.  Blah blah blah…point being, YOU know YOU.  Just put down the books for a while and listen to what your heart, and mind, and baby are telling you!

  18. Great tips!

    I recently wrote a blog on this exact topic because I think most of the literature is missing key things that us active pregnant ladies have figured out.  So I hope you don’t mind, I am going to link to it here if others are interested.

    http://hoobingfamilyadventures.com/2011/01/10/10-simple-rules-for-exercising-while-pregnant/

  19. kari Weber Jan 24 at 11:02 pm Reply Reply

    Nothing says embarrassing pregnancy blackout story like mine.  Totally blacked out 2 days before Christmas in a Circuit City Customer Service line.  Only 14 weeks… I wasn’t showing very much.  An embarrassing ambulance ride later… it was deemed I was good, just a quick low blood pressure bit.  I probably just looked like the crazy lady being carted off to the mental ward though… I think (in a misguided stage) that I was wearing overalls, and maybe braids…

  20. Michelle B. Jan 25 at 9:51 am Reply Reply

    I rode my bike to and from work till I was about 5-6 months pregnant and now I walk primarily. The biking always made me feel better and more energized, especially during my first trimester sleepiness. Every morning I walk my dogs for 20 minutes then at lunch I would walk a mile or so with some co-workers. I am now 35 weeks pregnant and still walk the dogs and walk at lunch (though a little slower) and even take the stairs (but again, just a little slower). My cousin did water aerobics up until the day she went into labor.

  21. wendy Jan 26 at 3:16 pm Reply Reply

    Great topic. And one that too many people jump to conclusions about without doing their research.
    I did my research and so continued to do everything I was doing pre-pregnancy, but reduced the weight and intensity.

    Check out crossfitmom.com. I was an avid crossfitter before pregnancy, and continue to do it now, at 38 weeks! I feel fine, just a little bit sore on some days, but of course, then I take some time off to recover. As many have already mentioned, it just requires, substituting movements here and there e.g. rowing instead of running; stepups instead of box jumps, etc etc etc! The possibilities are endless! I agree with one comment: working out even on the crappiest days always made me feel BETTER!!

    “Listen to your body” cannot be overstated! It is so important! And try not to worry too much! Okay, I’ll stop with the exclamation points now!! :)

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