"You wouldn't run a marathon without training for it" – a Rotunda physiotherapist on exercising in pregnancy
Being pregnant – and giving birth – is hard work.
To most of us, growing and birthing (and breastfeeding) a baby are some of the absolute most physically intensive things we will ever do.
In fact, in a recent study, researchers studying the limits of human endurance could at the end of the study reveal that pregnancy is the most energetically expensive activity the human body can maintain for nine months.
With this is mind, it makes so much sense to take measure to prepare for this physically full-on experience.
But unfortunately, says Niamh Kenny, Senior Physiotherapist at the Rotunda, so many women don't exercise when they are pregnant, some out of fear of possibly somehow harming their unborn babies, others because they simply may not be aware of the many reasons they absolutely should be keeping active while prepareing for labour and motherhood.
"Keeping active during pregnancy has so, so many benefits, for both you and your baby," Kenny explains.
"Not only are you making sure you are staying strong and physically prepared for labour – which is a very physically demanding job, but you are also getting your body, and mind, into a healthy state for what comes next, the postpartum period and new motherhood."
The Senior Physiotherapist, who specialises in women's pelvic health, explains that as a general rule, it is recommended that pregnant women (and the rest of the population in general) with a normal healthy pregnancy get 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day. But many fail to reach this, for a variety of reasons.
Find something you enjoy
"The trick is to look for a low-impact type of exercise you actually enjoy doing," Kenny explains. "And that in itself will make it more likely that you stick with it. Swimming is great, as is power-walking, pregnancy yoga, pilates and many other types of exercises you can do, whether you prefer to do them at home or by getting out to the gym or a studio."
The most important reason to keep active during your pregnancy, says Kenny, is to prepare your body for what is coming and to keep yourself healthy and strong for both the rest of your pregnancy and then labour.
"But what many women don't realise is that exercise is also so good for alleviating the discomforts they may struggle with when pregnant," she explains. "For instance, you can greatly reduce your chance of getting lower back pain, ease constipation and heartburn, reduce pelvic girdle pain (PGP) and last, but not least, you will feel so much better and have far more energy."
Another aspect of making sure you stay active in your pregnancy is the fact that it has been proven to have a very positive impact on not just your physical health, but your mental one too.
"When you work out, regardless of what way you do it, your body releases endorphines – and these little chemicals interact with the receptors in your brain and trigger a positive feeling in your body," explains Kenny.
"Pregnancy can be a time of a lot of feelings, and many find themselves worrying over labour and how to cope once the baby gets here. Exercise – even if we are talking going for a walk in the evenings or taking a maternity yoga class – can be a really great way to release some of those worries and feel better."
This is also why experts are so eager to recommend women to return to being active after birth (once they have been given to go ahead from their healthcare provider) – because the combination of endorphines and getting out meeting others, being social, has multiple benefits both for your phyisical and mental health in the postpartum period.
You being active in pregnacy will also have benefits for your unborn baby, believe it or not.
"Exercise will, for instance, improve blood flow to the placenta," explains Kenny.
As well as this, many studies have shown that mothers who stay active during pregnancy are also doing their baby's future heart and brain health a favour too.
Exercising in pregnancy – what you need to know
If you have been very active before you got pregnant, and especially if you have been doing very high intensity workouts, Kenny explains that you need to first of all consult with your doctor or midwife, and then make sure that you listen to your body. Pregnancy is not the time to aim for personal bests or to push yourself to the extreme.
"If you have been doing high intensity exercise like running before you got pregnant, maybe take it down a notch now by doing a brisk walk or a powerwalk instead – and make sure you listen to your body and stop if you feel uncomfortable or in any pain at all," she explains. You can continue to run as long, if it is important to you, as long as it is at moderate intensity, you feel well balanced and are not experiencing any symptoms of pelvic girdle pain or pelvic floor pressure and bladder leakage.
"I often recommend the 'Talk Test' for being able to check yourself while you are exercising to see if you are pushing yourself too much or just enough."
The 'Talk Test' she explains, is basically making sure that while you are exercising, you can still hold a conversation with someone.
"As in," says Kenny, "you should be breathing more deeply than you normally would, but you are not too out of breath to chat to someone next to you. If you find that you are, then maybe you should consider slowing your pace down a little."
Pelvic floor health
One of the absolute most important exercises to be doing when pregnant are those for your pelvic floor muscles.
Why? Because having a strong pelvic floor can not only mean an easier delivery, but you can also then avoid many complications and issues both after delivery and later on in your life.
The muscles of the pelvic floor lie in a figure eight shape around the openings of the urethra, vagina and rectum and attach from your tailbone at the back to your pubic bone in front The idea of doing pelvic floor – or Kegel – exercises is to strengthen these muscles, which basically serves the extremely important purpose of supporting your uterus, bladder, bowel and stabilising your pelvis.
"There are so many issues that can arise from a weakened pelvic floor," explains Kenny. "And so making sure women are informed how to do their pelvic floor exercises correctly, both before and after labour, is of huge importance. It is important to learn how to strengthen and relax the muscles to maximise their function and to do perineal massage in preparation for labour."
The experienced physiotherapist specialises in the pelvic floor, and explains how sometimes, problems can arise years later if women are not taking their pelvic floor health seriously.
"Bowel issuessuch as constipation, difficulty controlling wind, painful intercourseor leaking urine when you cough, sneeze, laugh or jump, are common, but often seen as something women just have to 'put up with' once they are mothers and have given birth. But this is not the case, and if you are struggling with this, help is available."
Kenny explains that at the Rotunda, classes are available for mums-to-be to learn more about how to make sure you are keeping your pelvic floor strong, and that experts are on hand to show and tell how to do your kegels most effectively.
"It is also so important once you start exercising again after birth, that you make sure you do your pelvic floor exercises and that you do these correctly," she explains.
" At the Rotunda, women can be seen during pregnancy and up to six months postnatally by specialist physiotherapists to help them with any bladder or bowel control issues or pain with sexual intercourse. There are a variety of treatments that can help so we don’t want women to continue to suffer unnecessarily with these issues."