Long gone are the days when pregnant women were thought too fragile to be exerting themselves. Active before her pregnancy, new mom Alida Abbott, of Kitchener, Ont., was not one to sit around, so she continued to run and swim until it got uncomfortable in her third trimester. She also did yoga until just before giving birth to her son, Tiago, now three weeks old. “Keeping fit helped me feel good all the way through my pregnancy, and the yoga helped me breathe my way through labour too,” she says.
There are many benefits of exercising through an uncomplicated pregnancy, says Dr. Karen Nordahl, a family physician in Vancouver and co-author of the book Fit to Deliver (Raincoast). “The most commonly reported benefits are a reduction in gestational diabetes and a reduction in incidences of gestational high blood pressure (hypertension). There is also a lot of data that suggests it reduces common pregnancy complaints, such as constipation, fatigue, leg cramps, etc.”
Exercise may also reduce pushing time and incidences of instrumental deliveries, but Dr. Nordahl says the data to support this is all from studies where women were in high-intensity exercise programs, working out six days a week, 45 minutes each day. “There hasn’t been much published about more recreational activities like prenatal yoga and fitness classes,” she says, “but the consensus is that they probably do help, you probably push a little better, you’re more comfortable with your body and you know what your body can do.”
Dr. Nordahl says it’s important that expectant moms consult their doctor or midwife before doing any exercise while pregnant—there may be issues such as risk of early labour, a low-lying placenta or underlying heart or lung conditions that could preclude you from exercise, but a previous miscarriage doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise, she says.
Once you get the medical okay, your doctor can also suggest what sort of exercise will be most beneficial. Dr. Nordahl notes that a fitness routine doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym—it can be as simple as a walking program. As long as they are comfortable, moderately active women can continue their pre-pregnancy exercise routines including running, aerobics, strength conditioning, stationary cycling and swimming. For women who did not exercise before they became pregnant, The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) recommends beginning with 15 minutes of continuous exercise three times a week, increasing gradually to 30-minute sessions four times a week.
Kaleena Lawless is a personal trainer in Toronto and works with doctors at Women’s College Hospital to train prenatal and postpartum patients. She specializes in helping those with multiple births and high-risk conditions and says that although every person and pregnancy is different, exercise benefits everyone, and even those on bedrest can do some kind of exercise.
“A certified personal trainer is going to know what exercises a pregnant woman can or can’t do, and listening to your body will help you determine your limits,” advises Lawless. Abbott says that she relied on her yoga instructor’s knowledge, and if a pose didn’t feel good, she just didn’t do it.
A reasonable goal for women during pregnancy, according to the SOGC, should be maintaining a good fitness level without trying to reach peak fitness.
During any workout, expectant moms should not exercise to the point of tiredness and should stop the activity and contact a doctor if they experience any of the following: excessive fatigue or shortness of breath, pain or cramping, vaginal bleeding, leaking of amniotic fluid, dizziness, pounding heartbeat (palpitations), unusual sensations in your chest or persistent contractions. Also remember to keep hydrated, drinking water during and after a workout. (There’s no issue with exercise affecting milk supply, as long as you keep your fluid intake up,
Dr. Nordahl says.)
Post-pregnancy, Lawless advises waiting a minimum of six weeks before starting to work out again and being sure to get your doctor’s consent before you do—especially if you had a multiple birth or delivered by Caesarean section.