Got Pregnancy? Get Exercise

The right kinds of exercise are key to staying fit, healthy, and happy during your pregnancy.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on June 19, 2012
4 min read

Now that you're expecting, a healthy exercise program should land high on your list of priorities, right next to the prenatal vitamins and full nights of sleep.

Why? For starters, you'll feel more upbeat and energetic. You'll also maintain cardiovascular health, just as a non-pregnant woman would, says Raul Artal, MD, professor and chair of the obstetrics, gynecology, and women's health department at Saint Louis University School of Medicine and principal author of the guidelines for exercise during pregnancy published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

Just as important, he says, staying physically active while pregnant helps prevent too much weight gain and lowers the risk of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia (high blood pressure that can happen during pregnancy). And here's some really welcome news: The benefits might extend to the delivery room, according to Artal. "We know that women who are physically fit can push the baby out much easier."

However, exercise may be unsafe under certain conditions, Artal says, including risk for preterm labor, severe anemia, heart problems, or poorly controlled diabetes. Not all medical problems rule out physical activity, but a pregnant woman may need to exercise under close medical supervision. Ask your doctor to be sure, and if you get the OK, you can walk, swim, work out with light weights, stretch, and do other safe sports. Just don't overdo it. You'll need to take some new precautions, such as building more breaks into your workouts. But exercise is a wise move for you and your baby.

If you didn't exercise before pregnancy, you can start now.

If you exercised regularly before pregnancy, you probably don't need to stop. And if you didn't exercise, you can start now -- carefully -- provided you have your doctor's blessing. "For people who are not used to exercising, go very slowly," says Jill Maura Rabin, MD, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Hofstra-North Shore LIJ School of Medicine in Hempstead, N.Y. In other words, now is not the time to take up long-distance running.

Rather, walking offers a great way to ease into exercise, Artal says. "I tell my patients, engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate to brisk walking." That's an ideal target: half an hour of physical activity every day, he says.

Work out to get the benefits, but don't push yourself too hard.

Getting your heart rate up is healthy, according to ACOG, as long as you can talk normally while exercising. Aerobic exercise strengthens your heart and lungs. If your doctor says it's OK, enroll in a low-impact or water aerobics class specially designed for pregnant women. Or try riding a stationary bike.

But don't overexert yourself, Rabin says. She advises pregnant women to take a break about every 20 minutes when they're working out or playing a sport. Most pregnant women can exercise without problems, but it's important to know when to stop and call the doctor. If you have shortness of breath before exertion, dizziness, severe headache, chest pain, muscle weakness, signs of preterm labor (such as contractions or lower abdominal cramping), vaginal bleeding, decreased fetal movement, or amniotic fluid leakage, Artal says, "these are warning signs to terminate exercise."

Adapt to the changes in your pregnant body.

There's a pregnancy hormone called "relaxin," and it does exactly what its name implies: It relaxes your pelvic ligaments so you can give birth more easily. Thank goodness for relaxin, but be aware that it also makes your joints less stable. It's smart to avoid jerky, bouncy, or high-impact movements, such as jumping or leaping, as well as making quick shifts in direction. "You want to be sure you're not overstressing and causing injury and tearing of tendons and ligaments in the joints," Rabin says.

Some sports are best left for later. Try scuba diving after the baby comes.

Forget about downhill skiing, scuba diving, or contact sports, such as ice hockey, soccer, and basketball, according to ACOG. Sometimes, a pregnant woman can find a better alternative, such as cross-country skiing (although there's still a risk of falling, so be extra careful). But overall, it's crucial to avoid hard falls, altitude sickness, large amounts of underwater pressure, or any trauma to the abdomen. "It suddenly becomes a matter of judgment," Artal says. "Do you want to expose yourself to the risk of getting injured?"

So save the high-intensity activities for a later day. You can always pick up your sport again -- and teach Junior to ski down a bunny hill or kick a game-winning goal.