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The Common-Sense Approach to Exercise During Pregnancy

By Amalah


Dear 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.

Advice Smackdown ArchivesI 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?


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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Published January 19, 2011. Last updated April 17, 2018.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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