“If an individual has a low-risk pregnancy, then being physically active will have benefits for both mother and baby,” says Michelle F. Mottola, PhD, director of the Exercise and Pregnancy Lab at Canada's University of Western Ontario. “Women can reduce their risks of developing gestational diabetes and high blood pressure, and being physically active can help give them the stamina they need to get through the hours of labor and birth.”
For you, the question isn't whether to exercise; it's how to exercise. Can you continue jogging? Are group exercise classes too intense for pregnant women? Is now a good time to try yoga? Are there days when you should move your fresh-air workout indoors?
“If you're already proficient at something, you should be able to continue without a problem,” says American Council on Exercise spokeswoman Sabrena Merrill, a Lawrence, Kansas-based fitness expert. “Use discomfort and common sense as your guide. And to avoid falling, if it's wet, slippery, or icy, don't go outside to exercise.”
Here, experts outline safety guidelines for pregnancy workouts:
A Balancing Act
It's easy to understand why you may feel clumsier than usual: “Pregnant women have an altered center of gravity, because the large abdomen shifts the weight forward,” says Scott G. Williams, MD, FACOG, an ob-gyn in St. Louis. “Some patients fall just going up and down the stairs in their houses.”
Stick with exercises you're familiar with, so you don't trip while learning a new step aerobics move. Low-impact exercises are ideal, including walking.
Giving Danger the Slip
No matter the season, when inclement weather hits your neighborhood, bring your daily walk or run indoors. It doesn't matter whether the streets are slick from a spring shower, wet autumn leaves, or slushy snow -- a fall on the pavement means that you'll need to see your doctor to make sure you're OK.
If you're tired of walking the mall in the dead of winter, get creative.
“Walking stairs is a great workout, because as you get heavier, you'll need stronger legs,” says Erin O'Brien, a prenatal and postnatal exercise specialist based in Pasadena, Calif., who created the Complete Pregnancy Fitness with Erin O'Brien exercise DVD. “Put on some rock-and-roll and walk up and down your stairs for 20 minutes, up until you're 36 weeks pregnant.”
Hot, humid summer afternoons are another time to skip an outdoor walk or run.
“Babies don't develop as well with excessive heat, which is why pregnant women are told to avoid hot tubs,” Williams says. “You get so hot, you raise the temperature of the baby. Don't be outside in the middle of the day in July or August exercising.”
You can also overheat while working out indoors, especially in a group fitness class.
“If you look in the mirror and you see that your face is really flushed, I'd take it down a notch,” O'Brien says.
Try the Talk Test
Years ago, doctors told pregnant patients to keep their heart rates below a certain number to ensure that they didn't exercise too intensely. Today, many experts prefer pregnant women to consider their rate of perceived exertion instead.
“We don't really go by heart rate anymore, because everybody's resting heart rate is different,” O'Brien says. “Instead, you should work out at a 7 on a scale from 1 to 10, rating your perceived exertion.”
If you're unsure what a 7 would be, try talking.
“You shouldn't be gasping for breath,” O'Brien says. “You should be able to complete a full sentence while exercising.”
If you can't rate your perceived exertion, there's also the heart-rate system.
“Some patients like to have a number, because the exercise bikes at the gym have a grip for pulse rate,” Williams says. “In general, it's ideal to keep your pulse rate below 150, but the more in-shape the person is, the harder it is to get to 150. A morbidly obese person can go up a flight of stairs and be at 150. Being able to carry on a conversation is a better guide than having an exact pulse rate.”
The Yoga Factor
Some people think that yoga and pregnancy go hand in hand, so novices buy a DVD or sign up for class. This isn't always a good idea.
“Only go to a prenatal yoga class,” O'Brien says. “They will be very specific about what you can and can't do."
If you decide to attend a regular yoga class, tell the instructor beforehand that you're pregnant so she can modify poses for you, O'Brien says.
Some fitness centers offer “hot yoga,” taught in a room that's pumped with heat. These classes are OK for your non-pregnant gym buddies, but not for you.
“Avoid classes where they're intentionally trying to get you to sweat,” says Cheryl R. Bellaire, MD, FACOG, an ob-gyn in Exton, Pa. “You want to watch for overheating.”
Wet Your Whistle
It's crucial for pregnant women to stay well-hydrated when exercising, whether indoors or out. Experts recommend sipping on cool water before, during, and after your workouts.
“Water is the best,” Bellaire says. “Some people aren't used to sports drinks, and they can be upsetting to your stomach. Some have a lot of sugar, too, which is unnecessary calories.”
Don't skimp on liquids because you're worried that you'll have to go to the bathroom. If need be, stay within a block or two of home when walking or running, or go pre-emptively before leaving the gym locker room.
“If you have an uncomfortable bladder, you'll be leaving class a few times, but so be it,” Merrill says. “You definitely don't want to be thirsty.”
4 Exercises to Avoid During Pregnancy
- Crunches. Don't lie on your back after the first trimester; the weight of your growing uterus can put too much pressure on important blood vessels, which can cause lightheadedness or fainting.
- Running on hot, humid days . It can be dangerous for the baby if your body temperature rises too high. Instead, head for a treadmill at the gym, or try running in the early morning, when it's coolest.
- Pilates. You're all set if the instructor is teaching a prenatal class, but ordinary Pilates classes have too much on-your-back time.
- Balancing classes. Some gyms offer group classes where everyone stands on round-bottomed equipment to improve their balance. Pregnant women have enough trouble with balance without putting themselves into purposely wobbly situations.
4 Ideal Exercises During Pregnancy
- Walking. It's an ideal year-round activity. If it's too hot or cold outside, or if the roads are icy or wet, head to the mall or a treadmill.
- Low-impact aerobics. You get a great cardiovascular workout with no jumping, no fancy footwork, and with one foot always on the ground.
- Water aerobics. It's lower-impact aerobics with even less risk of injury, because you can't stumble and fall in a pool.
- Recumbent bike. Cycling is excellent exercise, but riding a two-wheeler requires balance, so a stationary bike is better. For comfort's sake, the bike with the wide chair and backrest is best.