When you’re dealing with pesky pregnancy symptoms, such as morning sickness and lower back pain, the thought of getting up off the couch alone, let alone working out, can sound overambitious. But, experts agree that physical activity is one of the best things you can do to ensure a healthy pregnancy. That’s why the The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that pregnant women perform at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week.
But, if a woman isn’t used to exercise, pregnancy can be an especially intimidating time to take on new activities. This is because her body is already changing in so many ways, explains Anna Euser, OB-GYN maternal-fetal medicine specialist at UCHealth. Many women associate exercise with images of sprinting on a treadmill or swinging kettlebells, rather than simply increased activity—like a brisk walk. This can make the concept feel more out of reach. Here are some reasons you should definitely work out when pregnant.
It may help you manage your weight gain.
Weight management is especially important during pregnancy. It’s common for women to pack on more pounds than recommended. Excess weight gain during pregnancy has been linked to a myriad of complications, including gestational diabetes. So, exercising can help pregnant women prevent these types of conditions. “Women of an average weight should expect to gain about a pound a week during pregnancy,” says Anate Brauer, M.D., attending physician, Greenwich Hospital and NYU Medical Center. However, the appropriate amount of weight may be less in women with a higher body mass index or more in women with a lower body mass index.
It may decrease your risk of pregnancy complications.
In addition to reducing your risk of gestational diabetes, exercise can help decrease your risk of preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication most commonly associated with high blood pressure, aka hypertension. “We know that exercise can decrease hypertension outside of pregnancy, and there is evidence to support this effect in pregnancy, as well,” says Dr. Euser. This is excellent news, as this type of complication also increases your risk of premature birth, fetal distress and more.
It may reduce pains associated with pregnancy.
The added weight that pregnant women carry around, coupled with the change in posture, can affect your normal center of gravity, explains Sherry Ross, M.D., OB-GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. This is natural and affects plenty of women; however, it often leads to discomfort—back pain to be specific. Low impact exercises, such as swimming and water gymnastics, may reduce the intensity of pregnancy-induced lower back pain. They’re virtually weightless ways to get excellent exercise and relieve stress on the lower back, says Dr. Brauer.
It improves your ability to deal with the labor pain.
This one is a big sell among expectant women, as labor is notoriously not exactly pain-free. Good news: exercise can help with this, too. “Exercising during pregnancy helps build strength of muscles in the body that are challenged during labor,” Dr. Ross explains. “When you continue exercising during pregnancy you will continue to strengthen muscles needed to help during labor and delivery,” she adds. It’s also helpful to do kegel exercises, which target and strengthen your pelvic floor muscles, to ensure that they’re strong enough to withstand pushing out baby during a vaginal delivery.
It may decrease your risk of cesarean section.
Exercise improves strength and cardiovascular conditioning, both of which are required for a successful vaginal delivery, Dr. Brauer explains. “Women who are better able to push during delivery are less likely to end up with a cesarean section or operative delivery,” she says. Several studies have found this to be true. One published in the Women’s Health Issues journal, looked at the association between regular prenatal exercise and preterm birth, C-section delivery and hospitalization in pregnancy. Though they did not find any association between exercise and late preterm birth or hospitalizations, they did find an association between exercise and a decreased risk of a C-section.
It promotes better posture and muscle tone.
Once you hit your second and third trimesters, you may notice more aching, muscle weakness and overall fatigue. Exercise can help fight these symptoms, by increasing the flow of blood and oxygen to your muscles. It also helps strengthen your muscles, which helps with posture. “When muscles are strengthened in the back it helps avoid the pregnancy ‘slouching’ that can occur during pregnancy,” Dr. Ross says. “Other postural changes that occur during pregnancy, include joint laxity and the shifting center of gravity, which contribute to an increase in an unsteady gait,” she says. As pregnancy progresses, regular exercise helps control this unsteady gait.
It relieves stress.
With all of the changes happening to your body during pregnancy, you may feel stressed and overwhelmed. Exercise can help by releasing feel-good endorphins. These may help you deal with both the physical and emotional toll that stress can take on your body and mind.
Once you get the green light from your primary care provider, feel free to start sweating it out. Stick to the activities recommended during pregnancy—walking; swimming; stationary cycling; jogging; and participating in low impact aerobics, modified yoga and pilates, racquet sports and strength training. However, Dr. Brauer recommends avoiding contact sports, downhill skiing, surfing, gymnastics, horseback riding, scuba, skydiving, and hot yoga or pilates.