Prenatal exercise can make pregnancy more comfortable, ward off complications, and keep both you and your baby healthy beyond your due date. It can ease constipation, reduce back pain, strengthen your cardiovascular system, help you gain weight at a healthy rate and could even help decrease your risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and cesarean section delivery, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
But, in order to take advantage of those benefits, you should be working out frequently—at least 150 minutes per week, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—with a moderate level of intensity.
Work out almost every day.
How you squeeze in those 150+ minutes of prenatal exercise depends on your goals, says Catherine Cram, M.S., exercise physiologist, owner of Prenatal and Postpartum Fitness Consulting in Verona, Wisconsin, and coauthor of Exercising Through Your Pregnancy. But if possible, aim high.
“I like to see pregnant women exercise almost every day, so it’s part of her lifestyle and [so] she doesn’t have to re-train herself after having the baby,” says Cram. “Exercise five days a week, if you can.”
Helene Byrne, a perinatal fitness specialist at Be-Fit Mom and author of Exercise After Pregnancy: How to Look and Feel Your Best, points out that even if you were previously sedentary, exercise is not only doable, it’s recommended. Except in the case of some conditions and complications, which is why all pregnant women should first get their workout plan approved by their doctors.
Mix up cardio and strength training.
There are a few exercises that aren’t recommended during pregnancy—particularly those with a fall or injury risk—but many exercises are okay for pregnant women to do. When in doubt, both walking and practicing prenatal yoga are good choices.
“You want to have it be aerobic, and you want to have strength training every other day,” says Cram. “It has to be an activity you enjoy, what feels right for you.”
Keep an eye on the intensity level.
Knowing that you’re at a moderate intensity means staying in tune with your body. Cram says to imagine a scale of one to ten. You want to be at a four or a five—working hard, but not so out of breath that you can’t carry on a conversation.
“You want to work out in a zone that you feel is somewhat difficult. It’s okay for your muscles to feel a little tired after your workout,” says Byrne. “You want to feel psychologically energized after a workout.”
And watch out for overexertion. According to Byrne, signs of overexertion include:
- Joint pain, stiffness and/or reduced range of motion during or after a workout.
- Acute muscle soreness/weakness after a workout.
- Lower back pain during, or after, exercise.
- Any type of nerve pain (sciatica, piriformis syndrome).
- A feeling of heaviness in the vulva.
- A feeling that your belly has been bounced around.
- Reduced coordination.
- Shortness of breath
Adjust exercise as your pregnancy goes on.
During pregnancy, your body will be in constant change—you’ll become heavier, your center of gravity will change, and it may become more difficult to catch your breath. It’s important to adjust your routine according to how you’re feeling.
Once you find it difficult to do your usual five-day-a-week workout, lower the intensity a bit, says Cram. After that, you might want to lessen the frequency. Some women who are runners, for example, might be able to run in the third trimester; others might begin to take walks, instead. That’s okay but keep the duration at least 30 minutes, suggests Cram.
“You have to be able to have a couple things in your back pocket to work with and use when [your] normal workout isn’t working for you anymore,” says Cram. “You want to keep exercising right up to the time you deliver your baby.”