Pregnant? Get moving!

Prenatal exercise keeps you healthy and can aid in delivery and recovery



Preparing for baby is about more than painting the nursery. To help ensure a healthy pregnancy, an easier delivery and a quicker recovery, those in the health care and fitness fields recommend that expectant moms embark on a regular exercise program.

Here is some advice for moms-to-be from local experts on working out while pregnant. Whether you are a beginner or athlete, there is a program for you.

The health care provider

Laura Williams, a certified nurse-midwife with Partners for Women’s Health in Exeter, said the benefits of exercising during pregnancy are significant.

“When women are in good physical shape during pregnancy, their muscles are strong, their heart is strong, and they have more physical reserves to help them get through labor. Women may not realize it but if they are in good cardiovascular health, they pass that benefit on to their babies,” she said.

“In addition, exercising during pregnancy can also help women avoid excess weight gain, and then lose pregnancy weight faster once the baby is born.”

Once upon a time, pregnant women were deemed “in a delicate condition,” and exercise was limited. The picture has since changed. Williams said health care providers now allow most women to continue with whatever fitness routine they already enjoy.

“If you have an exercise program you like, and it’s not too extreme then keep on doing what you are doing,” she said. “The exceptions are contact sports or sports where you might make hard contact with the ground, like downhill skiing, horseback riding, and so on. But running, tennis, aerobics, dance – these are all fine for at least the first two trimesters, unless there are special conditions associated with your pregnancy.”

Williams does caution that pregnant women can be more at risk for muscle pulls, as their joints become looser, and she also urges elite athletes to be vigilant about their weight.

“We see a number of elite athletes, and because they work out at such a high level, we need to make sure they continue to gain weight, but that is easily monitored.”

Williams recommends that any prenatal fitness program includes exercises that get your heart rate up, get your blood pumping, and make your muscles strong. These types of exercises will yield the most benefits during pregnancy, delivery and recovery.

“Throughout pregnancy, women need to listen to their bodies, and that may mean slowing things down,” she said. “If you feel light-headed or dehydrated or anything hurts, then stop what you’re doing. Rest, get some fluids, and re-evaluate your fitness program. You may also want to talk to your provider about how to best modify your workouts to avoid future issues. Never try to ‘push through it’ when you’re pregnant.”

Williams said that in the first trimester, many women suffer from extreme fatigue and nausea, so they may not feel like exercising. However, exercise may make them feel better.

“We recommend 30 minutes of exercise per day, five days a week,” she said. “But if you are just not up to it, then try to get it in the next day. Also, by second trimester, most women are feeling much better, so regular fitness becomes easier.”

For women seeking recommendations for a fitness program, Williams suggests walking, swimming and pre-natal yoga as excellent choices.

The fitness pro

Fitness professional Joy Southworth of Body Design by Joy in Gilford saw a need for prenatal fitness programs early on.

“I created a DVD series called ‘Body by Trimester’ in 2012 and it sold more than 13,000 copies worldwide,” she said. “There was clearly a need. Women wanted healthy pregnancies and recoveries but didn’t know where to start.”

A lifelong athlete, Southworth wanted to stay in shape while pregnant but was surprised to find there were no fitness programs tailored to expectant women. After extensive research, she developed her own program.

“I think the expectant moms love my DVD series because it is broken down by trimester and led by a trainer who is also expecting. Working out with a pregnant trainer is inspiring and helps them to believe in their own capabilities.”

A certified personal trainer and certified pre/post-natal exercise specialist, Southworth emphasizes that the benefits of being fit while pregnant are extensive.

“It builds muscle tone, improves balance, stability, and cardiovascular health. It also boosts self-esteem and builds positive body image, which is not to be underestimated as women are often overwhelmed by all the changes to their bodies during pregnancy. And, the endorphins released make you feel good. Exercise raises your energy levels and your stamina, and all of these benefits aid you through delivery and afterwards.”

Southworth notes there are certain key fitness elements to focus on for each trimester.

“Your first trimester is all about keeping your energy up and fighting nausea, which the exercise will help with.”

During the second trimester, as the baby bump grows, women need to be aware of how their bodies are changing. “Your center of gravity is shifting so workouts during this phase focus on balance and stability,” she said. “We also work on core strength through breathing exercises. I incorporate breathing exercises into my workouts throughout pregnancy because they help keep you calm and boost energy, but they can also be used to improve your core when traditional core strengthening exercises can no longer be done.”

In the third trimester, Southworth works on strengthening the body overall and preparing for labor. “At this point, most of a woman’s weight is in front, so the back is compensating for that fact. During this time, it’s important to stretch those low back muscles and keep them loose but strong. We also do exercises that help prepare the body for delivery.”

Southworth stressed that it is important to get approval from your health care provider before beginning any exercise program.

The yoga expert

People often think of yoga as only an exercise for flexible people, but it is becoming a go-to exercise for pregnant women, and one that doctors are recommending.

“Prenatal yoga is growing incredibly fast,” said Megan Morris, a veteran yoga trainer and designer of the prenatal yoga teacher training program at ChildLight Yoga in Dover.

“It’s popular not only with experienced yoga fans but also with women who have never done yoga. We get beginners in our studio all the time who have been referred by their doctors.”

One reason for the interest is the multiple benefits that prenatal yoga provides. “Yoga is great conditioning for labor and delivery because it builds strength and flexibility; it also helps ease the discomforts, aches and fatigue caused by pregnancy, and the breathing techniques can be used during pregnancy and in labor.”

Morris said yoga also helps moms-to-be cope in more spiritual ways.

“It helps women feel more confident and comfortable in their bodies and more accepting of the changes that are taking place. The breathing exercises really help pregnant women to reduce stress, both during pregnancy and during those early, crazy months as new moms when the hormones are raging and the baby is needing lots of attention. Yoga teaches focus and how to surrender control, which can be very helpful to women during this time.”

Classes typically focus on strengthening the areas of the body that feel the greatest impact during pregnancy and delivery, such as the back and quadriceps, and postpartum, such as the arms and shoulders that get a workout as moms carry their babies. “We also work on strengthening and stretching every part of the body, as well as on poses that open the hips and pelvis in preparation for delivery,” Morris said.

A signature aspect of yoga is the use of breath combined with exercise. Morris said this is very useful for pregnant women.

“Breath is very important. We try to match poses with breathing, and we also teach women a range of breathing exercises for different situations. In general, women learn inhaling techniques that help them feel energized, and exhaling techniques that help the body become calm. Many of these same techniques can be used during labor.”

Meditation is also taught during prenatal yoga, and is helpful for coping with the challenges of pregnancy and post-delivery life.  

Crystal Ward Kent is a freelance writer who has written for numerous local and regional magazines. She owns Kent Creative in Dover, a creative services agency.

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