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Health & Pregnancy

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Staying Fit While Pregnant

The Novice: Walking and Water Spell R-E-L-I-E-F

"Only 20% to 30% of the population exercises on a regular basis, so the typical pregnant woman hasn't exercised prior to pregnancy," says Bonnie Berk, creator of MOTHERWELL, a pre- and postnatal fitness program offered throughout the United States and abroad.

Still, it's not too late for pregnant women who haven't been consistent exercisers to start now. Although hard data on the value of prenatal exercise isn't as well-documented for unfit women as for fit ones, experts like Berk have seen firsthand the difference that exercise can make, even for couch potatoes.

For one thing, by doing exercises that strengthen the muscles supporting the uterus, women stand to experience fewer complications like backaches, ankle swelling and fatigue during pregnancy, and their bodies will be better prepared for the rigors of childbirth, too.

Exercise also typically reduces stress and enhances body image, so pregnant women who are working on their fitness level often feel better about themselves. Such was the case for Dena Higgins, a nurse from Carlisle, Pa., who took MOTHERWELL water aerobics classes twice a week before her son, Joshua, was born last December.

"It was so nice to go exercise at the end of the day, get away from work for a while and just concentrate on myself and the baby," recalls Higgins. "It just made me feel so much better." In fact, Higgins admits while she wasn't successful at fitting in a regular exercise routine before pregnancy, she's hooked now and is already taking a mom-infant class.

Of course, that doesn't mean it's time to suddenly get hard-core, either.

Incorporating some moderate aerobic activity, such as walking or swimming, and some flexibility and strengthening work, like yoga, is all any pregnant woman needs, says Berk. About 20 to 30 minutes of brisk walking three to four times a week is plenty, four to five times if you're trying to minimize weight gain.

Overexertion may cause a dangerous reduction in blood flow to the fetus, so the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends mild-to-moderate exercise and stopping when fatigued. (It recommends mild-to-moderate exercise at least three times per week.) Rather than targeting a specific heart rate, many experts say it's more important for women to pay attention to "perceived exertion," which is basically how hard they're breathing and feel they're working.

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