So a couple of my client's have recently announced that they are expecting babies! Which is wonderful news and I'm absolutely delighted for them!! Naturally, they both asked the same question to me - what about exercise during pregnancy? So I thought it would be a good idea to write my blog this week about exercise and pregnancy, the changes your body goes through that affect your ability to exercise, and why you absolutely should keep up exercise when you are pregnant! I should also say that although I'm a pre and post-natal qualified Personal Trainer (which means I am qualified to train women during and after pregnancy) if you're at all unsure about exercise during pregnancy or have any other health conditions then please consult your doctor or midwife before any exercise.
My own experiences of exercise during my two pregnancies is a bit of a case study in itself. My first pregnancy I was quite fit before I fell pregnant. I used to run so I carried on running during the first few months up until about 5 months into it. Then, for some reason, I gave it up - not quite sure why to be honest. After that, I didn't do a lot and I had a desk-job mainly so I was probably quite inactive (it was 10 years ago now so my memory is not great!). I occasionally swam and sat on my Swiss ball at home, but that was it really. Whilst my pregnancy was good, my labour was not and after a 16 hour labour winding up in an operating theatre I felt like I'd been hit by a bus for months afterwards and recovery took a long time. By contrast, for my second pregnancy when I was expecting my daughter I was much more active. By then I had my 4 year old son to run after and he used to go for swimming lessons, which I took him to. So while he was at his lesson I went in for a swim and I did this right up until well into my 3rd trimester. I had a c-section with my daughter but I recovered far quicker from that, despite having major surgery, than I did from the one before. So my own conclusion from my personal experience is that being more active certainly helped me recover quicker and better from pregnancy number two.
There are many reasons to exercise during pregnancy - indeed the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (2006) lists many benefits to be gained from exercising during pregnancy, including:
Further research also suggests that women who continue to exercise during pregnancy gain less weight, deposit less fat, feel better, have shorter labours and recover more rapidly than those who don't exercise. There have been no identifiable maternal ill-effects of exercising during pregnancy and from the baby's point of view studies have shown that the baby's heart rate responds favourably to mum's exercise as well as they have a better tolerance for late pregnancy and labour. Other maternal side effects such as tiredness, varicose veins and joint swelling are reduced with exercise and it can also reduce the length of labour and the likelihood of delivery complications. Plus women who exercise during pregnancy are more likely to exercise post-pregnancy too. Not to mention improving glycaemic control in mums with gestational diabetes. So it seems there is not really any reason not to exercise and the advice of "sitting at home with your feet up" is no longer what's best! (although a bit of that is fine too of course!).
Having said all that, it is also important that care should be taken when exercising during pregnancy and that expectant mums appreciate that due to the nature of the changes that take place in their body it's pretty impossible to improve your fitness during pregnancy, but you can maintain your current fitness levels instead.
What changes actually happen in the body that will affect your ability to exercise? In the first trimester you may notice that you feel suddenly tired, you may have a racing pulse, nausea, be sweaty or feeling dizzy. This is due to the physiological changes happening in your body. There is a release of hormones (relaxin) which will cause a relaxation of the blood vessels and this can result in a fall in blood pressure. Because of this your heart rate speeds up to pump the reduced volume of blood around. These symptoms will usually have subsided by the end of the fourth month and the change in blood pressure will be rectified by the body producing more blood volume. By the end of the pregnancy you will actually have increased your blood volume by 30-50% and your cardiac output by 20-30% - amazing! In simple terms also this means your body is working harder than ever before and consequently demanding more oxygen.
You may also find that you sweat more easily, so when exercising you should be careful not to accidentally overheat. This is because during pregnancy the mother's core temperature can be higher than normal both before and after exercise, so the point at which your body starts to sweat to cool down changes - clever eh! This is also why you should be careful not to push yourself to exhaustion when working out when pregnant as during late pregnancy the combination of exercise and expanded blood volume mean that you may find it very hard to get your heart rate elevated even though you are exercising quite intensely. Your respiratory system also changes, and these functions are actually improved during pregnancy (you may find this hard to believe while you are climbing a set of stairs at 8 months pregnant!). The rib cage actually widens and elevates to compensate for the restricted movement of the diaphragm leading to a 40-50% increase in the amount of air breathed at rest. This means pregnancy does not affect lung function during exercise in healthy women.
As you probably know, your centre of gravity becomes affected during pregnancy which changes your posture and gait. Your lower back comes under greater strain with an exaggerated curve in the spine to compensate for the growing baby - if this didn't happen you'd topple over! Two areas of particular interest to women's health professionals and personal trainers are the abdominals and the pelvic floor, and these are often problem areas too. The abdominal muscles stretch and lengthen to accommodate the baby and this may result in a separation (diastasis recti), this is a very common condition and occurs in 2/3rds of pregnancies. However the muscles can regain tone and move back into place again post-nataly with the right help and guidance from a physio or qualified Personal Trainer (like me!). You also need to be aware of the strain your pelvic floor will be under during your pregnancy, and labour. The pelvic floor muscles can become weakened during pregnancy causing many problems, it really is important that you do your pelvic floor exercises (and speaking from experience I can confirm this!). You should include pelvic floor exercises in your daily routine several times a day. The pelvic floor has several important jobs to do including keeping your internal organs contained and helping push the baby out, so a strong pelvic floor will really help in labour.
So with all that in mind, what would my top tips be for exercise while you are pregnant?
The changes that take place in your body during pregnancy are really amazing! I hope you've found my tips helpful, if you did then please share this blog with others who will find it useful and feel free to ask me any pre and post-natal fitness questions!
Exercise For Mum's was created by PT mum Susan Flintoff. Susan is a busy working mum of two who specialises in helping other busy mum's fit health and fitness back into their lives, and hopes to inspire them to be the best mum they can be!!