You know that exercise during pregnancy is important for your and your baby’s health. The bonus is that it could also help you through one of the toughest (and happiest) days of your life—the day you go through labor. Of course, every individual labor experience is different, for a variety of factors. “I don’t want women to think there will be no problem because there are so many things that can go wrong that have nothing to do with whether or not she exercised,” says Catherine Cram, M.S., exercise physiologist, owner of Prenatal and Postpartum Fitness Consulting in Verona, Wisconsin, and coauthor of Exercising Through Your Pregnancy.
Still, keeping fit while pregnant can stack your odds of an uncomplicated birth. To reap any of the following benefits, Cram says it’s important that the exercise is regular, weight bearing, and of moderate intensity. You should exert yourself but not to the point where you can’t carry on a conversation. Here are some ways exercise can improve labor.
You may have a shorter labor.
In a study, more than 65 percent of women who regularly ran or did aerobics during the second half of pregnancy were in active labor for less than four hours. Only 31 percent of women who didn’t stick with prenatal exercise were able to say the same.
You may be better able to tolerate labor pains.
“Women who are fit are much better at dealing with what’s going on in labor,” Cram says. “They tend to know their body better and don’t tend to get freaked out as changes happen. They tend to have a better time dealing with those changes and also dealing with stressors.”
In fact, a study conducted in Brazil observed that women who participated in water aerobics while pregnant asked for pain medication during labor 58 percent fewer times than women who didn’t exercise.
Your baby may be less likely to need intervention.
There’s also evidence that women who perform regular weight-bearing exercises throughout their pregnancies need fewer interventions, such as induction, episiotomy, forceps delivery, and C-section.
The explanation, Cram says, lies in the placenta. “Women who exercise to the end of their pregnancies tend to have placentas with greater perfusion—that means more blood coming in with oxygen and nutrients,” she explains. “Suffice it to say exercise builds a fetus better to withstand stressors.” No fetal distress may mean no need to intervene.
You may reduce the risk of a preterm birth.
Several studies suggest that regular exercise puts a woman at lower risk for preeclampsia, a dangerous condition that can lead to the need for preterm birth, and other causes of babies being born before reaching full term. This is another benefit that’s thanks to a super-healthy placenta.
You may be able to push the baby out easier.
While overall fitness is key, there are two particular groups of muscles that, when conditioned, could help a woman in the pushing phase of labor—let’s be honest, this is the part many of us dread most. These are the pelvic floor muscles and the transverse abdominis (TvA).
When most of us think of pelvic floor exercises, we think of Kegels. But it’s not only important to be able to contract this muscle group; it’s also essential for birth to be able to relax it.
“Build elasticity in the pelvic floor muscles to help prevent tearing or the need for an episiotomy,” Byrne says. She suggests doing exercises while sitting in a wide straddle on a fitness ball during the third trimester. This can include anything you’d normally do with hand weights or a flex band.
“During exercise, the ball intermittently undergoes a small amount of stress, and this creates a small counterforce upward into the pelvic floor, building elasticity,” she explains. Also, “moms-to-be can benefit greatly by simply performing small bounces while seated astraddle on a fitness ball, to more directly target their pelvic floor muscles.”
Imagine an internal “corset” that wraps around your abdomen. That’s the TvA muscle. “The TvA is our primary, voluntary expulsion muscle used during labor, so the stronger a mom’s TvA, the more she’ll be able to assist in the pushing phase of labor,” Byrne says.
To isolate and strengthen these muscles, stand against a wall with a neutral spine and compress them as you exhale. Breathe normally for several breaths before releasing the muscles.
The key to staying fit during your pregnancy is modifying your workouts to best suit your unique pregnancy. Cram recommends working closely with a trainer or fitness consultant with a background in prenatal fitness. “Don’t use labor as the only reason to exercise during pregnancy; there are other reasons so much more important,” Cram says. “You’re building a healthier baby.”