Exercise in Pregnancy: How Much Is Too Much?

Moderate exercise is good, but you can't forget you have a baby on board.

Medically Reviewed by Nivin Todd, MD on June 02, 2014
3 min read

In the fall of 2013, pictures of 35-year-old Lea-Ann Ellison lifting a huge barbell, her 8-months-pregnant belly protruding below her sports bra, surfaced on Facebook and quickly spread across the Internet. Ellison, a former bodybuilder, gave birth to a healthy baby boy not long after the pictures were taken. But the image of a woman so close to their delivery date doing an intense workout stirred up a lot of criticism -- including from Raul Artal, MD.

"Each time she did that spot lifting, blood would be diverted from all the internal organs to the muscles. It would be synonymous to stepping on the umbilical cord every few minutes for as long as she was holding those weights up," says Artal, professor and chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology & Women’s Health at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

Prenatal exercise isn’t a bad thing, Artal says. It does a pregnant body good for a lot of reasons. One is to help prevent gestational diabetes, or high blood sugar during pregnancy.

The question is: How much exercise is too much? The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) offers some guidelines. It recommends that pregnant women avoid contact sports and activities that pose a risk of falling or injuring the abdomen. Beyond that, it’s really up to a woman and their doctor to decide.

Pregnant women should be able to do most of the same exercises they did before they conceived. Walking, swimming, and dancing are all safe choices. According to ACOG, women who should skip exercise entirely while pregnant are those with conditions such as heart or lung disease, a weakened cervix, high blood pressure (preeclampsia), problems with the placenta, bleeding, or those who are at risk for early labor.

No matter how fit you are, get the OK from your doctor before embarking on a fitness program during pregnancy.

Most exercises are probably safe to continue, but a few should be postponed until after you deliver, Artal says.

Scuba diving: Diving is a plunge no expectant mom should risk taking. When divers rise back to the surface, they go through a process called decompression to release built-up gas from their body. Unborn babies aren’t equipped to handle decompression, and the gas bubbles can be fatal to them.

Contact sports: Save the soccer, football, or basketball game for after you deliver. If you get hit in the stomach during play, it could put your baby’s health at risk.

Downhill skiing: The slopes are no place for a pregnant woman. Not only do you chance falling during a ski run, but altitudes higher than 6,000 feet can deprive your baby of oxygen. If you can’t wait until next season to ski, switch to cross-country.

Intense weight lifting: Light to moderate weight training is OK, but lifting extreme weight is probably not. It causes less blood flow to the placenta, and there’s the risk of falling or dropping a weight on a protruding belly.

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