Exercise During Pregnancy: Myth vs. Fact

Experts say what's safe and what's not safe when it comes to staying fit during pregnancy.

From the WebMD Archives

In the not-so-distant past, women were urged to cut down on or even avoid exercise during pregnancy. Today, we know differently. Not only is it OK to participate in fitness activities during pregnancy, but doing so can have a positive impact on both baby and mom.

"You need to be physically active during pregnancy. It has terrific benefits that are associated with a better pregnancy outcome and even shorter labors. It's a win-win for baby and for mom," says high-risk pregnancy expert Laura Riley, MD, spokeswoman for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and author of Pregnancy: You and Your Baby.

Yet it seems that myths surrounding fitness and pregnancy just won't go away. Indeed, experts say that truisms about what's safe and what's not abound, leaving many women confused and ill-advised.

"There are so many rumors out there, some started or perpetuated by popular pregnancy books, others the result of old wives' tales or outdated advice, so that many women really are confused about what they can and can't do," says Riley.

The Truth About Exercise in Pregnancy

Ready to test your smarts? The following questions, vetted by several top fitness and medical experts, will set the record straight on what's really OK when it comes to exercise during pregnancy.

Of course, consult with your doctor before you start any exercise program. Some women will not be able to exercise during pregnancy because of specific conditions or complications.

Myth or Fact: Never get your heart rate over 130 while exercising during pregnancy.

Myth. There is no one "target" heart rate that's right for every pregnant woman. "People are still stuck on this heart rate issue, and it was never based on anything concrete," says Riley, noting that ACOG abandoned the "target heart rate" concept a long time ago. What they and most experts now rely on as a guide is RPE, or rate of perceived exertion.

"This is a scale that determines how hard you are working based on how you feel when you are working," says Farel Hruska, certified fitness trainer and the national fitness director for Stroller Strides and their Fit To Deliver pregnancy workout program.

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Myth or Fact: It's not safe to do abdominal work during pregnancy.

Myth. Not only is it OK, experts say abdominal workouts can provide many benefits.

"Your abdominals and your entire core, including your pelvic floor, should be strengthened throughout pregnancy, and doing so will help not only during pregnancy, but also aid in labor and delivery -- and recovery," says Sue Fleming, a certified fitness instructor. Fleming is also founder of Buff Fitness.com and creator of the video Buff Moms-To-Be.

Moreover, Fleming says, it's going to help with posture problems which will also benefit you after baby is born.

Because you should avoid any exercises that you have to do on your back after the first trimester, Fleming suggests gentle standing pelvic tilts, seated belly breathing, or tightening abs, holding, then releasing, as good ways to keep ab muscles in top condition.

Myth or Fact: If you were a runner before pregnancy, you can continue to run during pregnancy.

Fact. As long as you and your pregnancy are healthy, and you feel OK, experts say it's safe to run right up until you go into labor. "Both ACOG and the National Academy of Sports Medicine have said that if you were running prior to pregnancy, you can continue during pregnancy, as long as you feel OK," says Hruska.

If it does start to feel "odd," she says, listen to your body and don't do it. She also reminds us that this is not the time to break any performance records. "Also realize that as your pregnancy progresses, you're going to be able to do a little less with each trimester. So don't compete with your pre-pregnancy running achievements, or even with what you could accomplish in a previous trimester," says Hruska. Talk to your doctor about your exercise plan and any precautions that may pertain to your individual situation.

Myth or Fact: Pregnancy can make you more prone to certain fitness injuries.

Fact. During pregnancy, your body produces a hormone called relaxin. It's designed to help lubricate joints so labor is easier. When joints are too "lax," your risk of injury increases.

"What you want to avoid are any activities involving deep muscle or joint movements -- heavy lunges, squats, those types of activities," says Fleming.

Farrell warns us to be careful during the flexibility portion of any workout. "You're going to find you have an increased range of motion, but that's not necessarily a good thing, because it can lead to injury," says Hruska. To avoid problems, she says, stay inside your pre-pregnancy range of motion. "Just because you now find it easy to reach well beyond your toes, doesn't mean you should!" says Hruska.

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Myth or Fact: Not every exercise is safe to do during pregnancy.

Fact. Exercises involving balance, like biking or skiing, or contact sports like soccer, can be risky during pregnancy. "After the fourth month, your balance is affected. So that's when you don't want to do anything that will put your body in an unstable position, which is any exercise or activity that requires balance," says Fleming.

Myth or Fact: If I exercise too much during pregnancy, I will pull nutrients from my baby so he/she won't grow properly.

Myth. "The reality is that your baby is going to get what it needs. So if anything, you'll have a dip in your own nutrient stores, but your baby's stores will be fine," says Riley. The way to avoid any problems for you, she says, is to keep blood sugar levels balanced by eating smaller, more frequent meals. "Babies of mommies who exercise during pregnancy are born leaner, but organ size and head circumference are normal. So don't be afraid to exercise during pregnancy," says Riley.

Myth or Fact: If I never exercised before pregnancy, now is not the time to start.

Myth. "If you never excised before, pregnancy is not the time to become the exercise bunny. But that doesn't mean you have to spend nine months sitting on the couch," says Riley. Something as simple as taking a daily walk or going for a swim can do wonders for your pregnancy, and make you feel better as well. Fleming says it can also help you combat the fatigue of pregnancy and help you sleep better at night. And, she says, you can start slow.

"Ten minutes a day is a great beginning. Then increase it to 10 minutes twice a day, then gradually go up to 15 minutes. Even just walking around the block is going to have important benefits," says Fleming.

Myth or Fact: Any sign of trouble -- like spotting or pain -- means I should stop exercising and not do it any more during my pregnancy.

Myth. While signs of pain, spotting, lightheadedness, nausea or dizziness are all reasons to stop exercising immediately, it doesn't necessarily mean you will have to give it up forever. "What it means is talk to you doctor. Tell her exactly what you felt and what you were doing when you felt it, how long it lasted, and the severity. And then ask for her advice as to whether or not you should continue with an exercise program," says Riley.

ACOG lists these warning signs to stop exercising and contact a doctor: vaginal bleeding, fluid leaking from the vagina, decreased fetal movement, uterine contractions, muscle weakness, calf swelling or pain, headache, chest pain, increased shortness of breath, dizziness, or feeling faint.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 06, 2009

Sources

SOURCES: Laura Riley, MD, director of labor and delivery, Massachusetts General Hospital's Vincent Obstetrics and Gynecology Service; author, Pregnancy: You and Your Baby; spokeswoman, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Sue Fleming, certified fitness trainer; director, BuffFitness.com; creator of Buff Moms-to-Be video series.  Farel Hruska, certified fitness trainer, national fitness director, Stroller Strides and Fit-To-Deliver. ACOG patient education pamphlet: "Exercise During Pregnancy."

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