Exercise and pregnancy: How much is too much?
Whether you are a fan of hard-core Cross Fit sessions, or you're just as happy with just a gentle stroll, there’s no doubt women are confused about what type and how much exercise to do during pregnancy.
Here are my top tips to help keep mum and baby healthy during this busy time:
Don’t be afraid to move!
A common concern for many women is that exercise in the first trimester, or indeed later on in pregnancy could ‘dislodge’ the baby or have a negative impact on the baby’s health.
While bed rest is not exactly an option, that doesn’t mean now is a good time to start training for a marathon either. A moderate amount of exercise three-to-four times per week, while staying active during the rest of the time is a great way to improve blood flow to the uterus to keep your baby healthy.
A good tip for how to approach fitness during pregnancy is to take what you were doing before you conceived, then reduce the intensity by 2o per cent. Obviously, if you were enjoying high risk sports, such as skiing, horse-riding or martial arts before you conceived, you would need to try something less risky instead.
However, if you were a keen runner and would happily run a few 5ks during the week, then you don’t have to stop running, just adapt your pace to account for your growing baby bump and how much energy you feel you can put into each session.
If you have any secondary health conditions, such as a heart murmur, diabetes or obesity, then get a check-up with your GP to monitor your blood pressure and make sure there is no reason you shouldn’t be exercising.
Should I exercise in the same way during early pregnancy and late pregnancy?
In the first trimester, many women feel absolutely shattered. This is no great surprise – you are growing a human brain and a complex central nervous system during those first few weeks after all. During this time, it’s perfectly normal to want to relax on the couch and not do anything active, but for the sake of proper circulation to your baby, try to integrate some light movement into your daily routine.
This can be something as simple as getting up from your desk every 30 minutes to walk around the room and stretch calves and shoulders to relieve any tension. The aim is to avoid staying completely static for any length of time. Even sitting down, you can still do a lot by extending the leg and rotating the ankle or tensing and relaxing the calf muscle to improve blood flow back up the legs, which can pool in the lower limbs if you remain seated for a long period.
By the second trimester, most women see an improvement in energy levels and nausea (if that was an issue) is significantly reduced. More energy, means more movement, so this is a great time to start that yoga class, a maternity swimming group or enjoy longer walks or runs then you were able to manage in the first trimester.
By the third trimester, the size of your baby bump is the main issue. Most women don’t like the idea of running at this point as it puts a lot of pressure on the pelvic area, but a stationary exercise bike is a great alternative. You can still keep up your cardio, to ensure good stamina for labour, but without any of the discomfort from bouncing up and down on a pavement or treadmill.
Think bilateral, rather than unilateral exercise
It’s best to avoid activities during pregnancy that use predominantly one side of the body only, like tennis or golf.
This is because you will be over-developing the muscles on one side of the body and there's a risk of over-stretching the stomach muscles.
I consulted with a lady before who was very keen on tennis, but by her fifth month, she had to concede that underarm serving was a better plan, as she was straining her stomach muscles with the over arm serves, which is not a nice feeling during pregnancy. It can actually feel like a sudden stabbing sensation in the belly and while it’s rarely dangerous, it’s not something any woman wants to repeat.
If you are used to exercising in a gym with a trainer, there is no reason why you can’t adapt your regime while pregnant to suit your needs. Lifting weights is not a problem, provided you stick to that 20 per cent less intensity rule and avoid straining by lifting a weight that's too heavy for you. Seated leg extensions, bicep curls, shoulder press, walking lunges etc.. are acceptable and can be very helpful to maintain strength in the legs and arms, which is easily lost if you stop your usual routine. Squatting is not a good idea as it puts too much pressure on the perineal muscles, but if you are at the end of your pregnancy and looking for a natural way to stimulate labour, squatting can be helpful and is safe to do at that point, when your baby is full term.
Take it easy with the stretching
I always encourage women to take up yoga during pregnancy. From around the 16th week, when your bump is starting to show, a mother-to-be yoga class is a lovely way to connect with other women who are also pregnant, while working on your breathing techniques and stamina to get through labour when it’s eventually your turn.
That said, it’s very easy to over stretch because of hormonal changes within the body. The hormone relaxin, as the name suggests, will make your tendons and ligaments more loose and stretchy, so you may find you are able to touch your toes or go much deeper into hip stretches or squats than you were ever able to do previously.
While it’s good and healthy to be flexible, the trick is to reach the point where you are starting to feel it, but don’t get too excited and see how far you can push it. If you do, you might find yourself dealing with very uncomfortable groin, calf, knee or back pain while the ligaments heal after being over exerted.