Exercise Don’ts When You're Pregnant

You've probably heard about the benefits of exercising during pregnancy: better sleep, more strength and endurance, and a lighter mood. It’s great for you to take walks or swim, for instance. But some exercises are not a good idea when you're pregnant. Knowing the difference can help keep you and your growing baby safe.

The question of how much you can exercise hinges on your specific risks. If you are at high risk for complications, your doctor may recommend that you put your exercise plans on hold until after you give birth. Or, they may suggest that you cut back on exercising at around 20 to 24 weeks.

Before considering any exercise program, talk with your doctor about your specific risks and concerns. Then, make sure to learn what types of exercises are best to avoid, even if your doctor gives you the OK to exercise.

Exercises to Avoid

If you were exercising before you became pregnant, ask your doctor or midwife if it’s safe to keep the same routine. Here are some activities to stay away from:

Exercise to lose weight. Depending on your pre-pregnancy weight, you can expect to gain about 25-35 pounds. This can be hard to take, emotionally and physically, but save the calorie burning for after you give birth. As long as you eat a healthy diet, weight gain during pregnancy is a sign of your baby’s healthy development.

Contact sports. Rough-and-tumble sports like soccer, basketball, and ice hockey come with a high risk of getting knocked in the stomach. Avoid these sports after your first trimester, when your belly starts to get bigger.

Fall-prone activities. The risks outweigh the benefits when it comes to activities that require a lot of balance, such as skiing and horseback riding. Even riding a bike outdoors is sketchy when you're not used to balancing a pregnant belly. After week 12 or 14, do your pedaling on a stationary bike. If you ride a bike for transportation, talk with your doctor about how to keep yourself and your baby safe.

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Overdoing it. Pushing to the point of exhaustion may boost athletic performance, but when you're pregnant, it can reduce blood flow to your uterus. During exercise, you should be able to sing one round of “Happy Birthday” without running out of breath. If you can’t, you're pushing too hard.

Bouncing or jarring activities. Joints get looser during pregnancy, which can raise your risk of injury. Take a temporary vacation from high-impact aerobics and kickboxing.

Too much heat. On hot summer days, plan ahead so you can exercise in the cool of the morning or evening, or find a gym that has air conditioning. Steer clear of Bikram and other forms of hot yoga while you're pregnant. Make sure you drink plenty of water.

Lying on your back. It’s fine to lie on your back for a few minutes. But as your uterus gets heavier, it can cut off circulation to your legs and feet, as well as to your baby. Avoid yoga poses, crunches, and any other activities that call for lying on your back longer than just a couple of minutes.

High-altitude exercise. If you visit the mountains while you’re pregnant, stay below 6,000 feet when you exercise. Talk with your doctor or midwife if you have questions so you don’t unnecessarily avoid healthy exercise. Here are signs of altitude sickness you should watch out for:

If you have any of these symptoms, call it quits for the day and call your doctor or midwife.

Deep-sea exploration. Put any plans to go scuba diving on hold. The change in pressure could put your baby at risk of decompression illness.

Making Exercise Modifications

If your favorite sport appears on the list of don’ts, you may be able to continue, within reason. Talk with your doctor or midwife about ways to modify your exercise so it's safe for your baby. Here are a few suggestions:

Less intensity. Instead of sprinting around the track, go for a light jog or a brisk walk. Instead of hot yoga, look for a prenatal yoga class.

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Shorten your workout. As your pregnancy progresses, you may tire out more quickly. Save energy by breaking up your exercise into smaller sessions. If you can’t take a 30-minute walk, take several 10-minute walks throughout the day.

Shift your weight. Roll up a towel and put it under one side of your back so you can keep the blood flowing to your legs and uterus while you stretch.

Use lighter weights. More repetitions with lighter weights can keep your muscles strong without hurting your joints.

With these modifications, you have many ways to exercise during pregnancy that are good for you and for your baby’s health. Before you head out to the gym or field, talk with your doctor or midwife. Then go ahead and get moving!

When to Stop Exercising

Take a break if you have any of the following:

Shortness of breath. A growing baby can push against your lungs and make it harder to take a full breath, especially in your last few months. Even earlier in pregnancy, the hormonal changes that affect your lungs can make you feel short of breath. But if you have increased shortness of breath or any other breathing changes that are unusual, call your doctor or midwife right away.

Overheating. If you feel yourself getting hot, slow down. Getting overheated can cause some serious problems for your growing baby, including birth defects. Make sure you drink plenty of water while exercising. Stay safe and take it easy when you're exercising on hot days.

Dizziness. You're more likely to feel dizzy when you’re pregnant -- especially early in your second trimester. Dizziness during exercise, though, could cause you to fall. Don't risk it -- if you feel dizzy, take a break and lie down on your side. Call your doctor or midwife if the symptoms persist.

Pain in your back or hips. This is another sign your body's had enough for the time being. Stop what you're doing and take it easy.

When to Call Your Doctor

If you have any of the symptoms below, stop exercising right away and call your doctor or midwife:

Warning signs of preterm labor. It may be possible to stave off preterm labor if you and your doctor or midwife act quickly. Be on the lookout for:

  • Contractions, especially if they continue after you rest and drink water
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Unusual pain in your belly
  • Fluid leaking or gushing from your vagina

Trouble breathing. Breathing conditions such as asthma can be more serious when you’re pregnant. If you have asthma, always carry your inhaler. Phone your doctor or midwife if you have:

  • Lightheadedness or feeling like you might faint
  • Chest pain
  • Heart pounding
  • Rapid heartbeat

Exercise is a great way to stay fit and emotionally grounded while pregnant. But pay attention and be ready to back off or call your doctor or midwife if your body sends you any of these warning signals.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on March 19, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth, Simon and Schuster, 2008.

Brookside Associates Medical Education Division: “Activity Modifications During Pregnancy. In: Obstetric and Newborn Care - I.”

CDC: "Physical Activity: Healthy Pregnant or Postpartum Women."

Heather J. Alker, MD, board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist, childbirth educator, Amherst, MA.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Weight-Control Information Network: "Fit for Two."

Office on Women’s Health: "Staying Healthy and Safe."

Riley, L. Pregnancy: The Ultimate Week-By-Week Pregnancy Guide, Meredith Books, 2006.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: Exercise During Pregnancy: You’ll Both Benefit."

Walker, A. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating During Pregnancy, McGraw-Hill, 2005.

FamilyDoctor.org: “Exercise During Pregnancy: What You Can Do for a Healthy Pregnancy.”

KidsHealth from Nemours: “Exercising During Pregnancy.”

March of Dimes: “Shortness of breath -- Pregnancy,” “Signs and symptoms of preterm labor and what to do -- Pregnancy,” “Headaches -- Pregnancy,” “What is deep vein thrombophlebitis (DVT)? -- Pregnancy,”

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: Your Pregnancy and Childbirth: Month to Month, Women’s Health Care Physicians, 2010,” “FAQ: Exercise During Pregnancy.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health: “Pregnancy -- Staying healthy and safe.”

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