Pregnancy and exercise

Mother and Baby
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Exercise in pregnancy. Image: Getty
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Whether you're a couch potato or a gym-bunny, exercise has an important role to play in your pregnancy.

Your body seems to be changing every day and you're usually so tired you can barely reach the chocolate bar on the table in front of you, let alone put on your sneakers and go for a walk. Fitness might be the furthest thing from your mind but exercise has a big role to play in your pregnancy, labour and life with your new bub: Being fitter makes labour easier, helps you cope with the more physical aspects of your new life, and will make you a healthier mum in the long-term. But is it really necessary? And how much exercise is safe for you and your baby?

Work it out
The benefits of being fit while pregnant are seemingly endless. In the short-term, the endorphins you'll produce while exercising will give you a boost, as well as raising your self-esteem. Getting fit sooner rather than later will also make you feel better on a day-to-day basis, strengthening muscles and improving posture so your back and legs won't ache as much. You'll have more energy and will be able to sleep better. When the big day finally arrives you'll have less chance of needing a forcep or caesarean delivery, and on average your labour and recovery period will be shorter too.

Still not convinced? It's been proven that babies born to fitter mums are calmer than others, indicating that the endorphin boost is good for both of you. And exercising supplies the placenta with more oxygen, giving bub a great head-start to life: by the time they're five, children of mums who exercise score higher than others in intelligence and language tests. So it's not just you you're affecting by raising your heart rate it's good for your littlie too.

In the beginning
Whether you hated PE at school or it was your favourite subject, there's a place for exercise in your life now. It's just a matter of finding the right kind.

'If you've never done anything before, I'd recommend starting slow,' says Natalie McGlenchy, a personal fitness trainer to pregnant mums. 'Do very low-impact, light resistance exercise, such as walking or biking. Swimming is fantastic too. It's not the time to try any new exercises or sports so stick to what you know.'

If slipping into your gym gear was a regular occurrence pre-baby, you can maintain your current level of activity. 'Just make sure your heart rate stays at or below 140 beats per minute, to make sure you're not overdoing it,' Natalie advises. 'Most gyms have heart monitors you can borrow so you don't even need to buy your own.'

There are a few exercises to avoid: squatting exercises are out during the second trimester, and over-the-shoulder exercises, such as shoulder presses, aren't allowed in your third. To be sure you're doing the right thing tell your gym you're pregnant and ask for an updated program.

Quitting time?
Captain of the Adelaide Ravens netball team, Trudy Gardner, was 11 weeks pregnant when Netball Australia barred all expectant women from playing the sport. Debate sprang up around the country: did the organisation have the right to make that decision for all its players, or should it be up to the individual mums-to-be? And when is the right time to stop playing competitive sports?

Netball Australia eventually lifted the ban, and now encourages all pregnant players to discuss their situation with their doctor. Official guidelines from Sports Medicine Australia and the Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists state it's very unlikely that playing sport or having a fall while exercising will cause a miscarriage. But Natalie says all women, even the fittest, should be mindful of pushing themselves too hard. 'I would never recommend running or even jogging in pregnancy the ligaments are loosened up to get ready for birth, and the chances of injury and throwing your lower back out are much higher,' she says. 'But it's up to the individual and their doctor to decide.'

Those other exercises
While you're working on your fitness there's another set of muscles you should be getting into shape: your pelvic floor muscles, which keep your bladder closed. By the time you're ready for labour these muscles have been put under a lot of pressure they're the ones that support your uterus, bowel, and bladder, as well as the baby. They get even more stretched during birth, so it's no surprise that many women are incontinent afterwards. But by doing pelvic floor exercises before baby arrives you'll be in better shape: just clench the muscles around your vagina and anus as if stopping a wee mid-stream, keeping them tensed for around 10 seconds. Have a break of 10 seconds before repeating. Doing this at least 25 times a day while waiting in queues, sitting in traffic or your desk, or in the ads when watching TV will keep the little leaks at bay later.

Give it a go
Walking is just as good for you as jogging, and won't put your joints under stress. Try to get out for a brisk walk for around 20 minutes three times a week try it in your in your lunch break, walk to a further bus stop, or go for a post-dinner lap of the neighbourhood. Tip: Keep your bump pulled in towards you (don't arch your back), and keep your shoulders back.

Swimming is fabulous for toning the tummy muscles which will be used during labour and just think how good you'll feel floating weightlessly through the water on a hot day! To stretch your chest muscles, which may be aching under the weight of your growing breasts, try breaststroke. Tip: Try aqua-aerobics or aqua-yoga for a different kind of watery workout.

Yoga teaches you how to relax through breathing and getting in touch with your body the exact skills you're going to need during labour. It can also ease leg and back aches, and constipation. Tip: Your loosened ligaments will make it easier to over-stretch, so be careful. Don't lie on your back after 20 weeks as you may become dizzy: tell your teacher you're pregnant so you can get some bub-friendly variations of poses.

Keep in mind

  • You'll need even more water than usual when exercising, so keep your fluids up. Avoid exercising on hot days.
  • Wear loose clothes and comfortable shoes remember your feet may swell so you may need wider shoes.
  • Be aware of your centre of gravity as it changes; keep a straight posture at all times.
  • Talk to your doctor and gym instructor/trainer about your exercise routine.

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