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Exercise: It does a pregnant body good!


The Internet – particularly social media – is cyber proof of the truth behind the phrase, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” It’s all about shaming and more often than not, women are the victims of said shaming.

It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re a celebrity suspected of plastic surgery, you’re shamed for trying to look younger in a brutally age-discriminatory culture. If you’re caught coming from a work-out sans make-up and a pony tail, you’re shamed for not looking red-carpet ready. Even pregnant women aren’t spared. A quick looksee online and you’ll find a pregnant, full-figured woman being picked to pieces because how dare she post photos of herself in a bikini? On the flip side, you can be in exquisite, not-an-extra-ounce-of-fat-at-eight-months-of-pregnancy-totally-toned physical shape (i.e., long-term gym rat) and be just as severely shamed because you posted images of yourself while working out. What a bad mother! Putting baby at such risk!

So let’s settle something right now. Exercise for all women – pregnant or not – is a good thing. Contrary to old obstetrical beliefs, being physically active during pregnancy is proven to not harm but benefit moms and babies and is associated with shorter labor and better pregnancy outcomes. A breakthrough study from 2013 in the journal Experimental Physiology, found that gestational exercise significantly alters the vascular smooth muscle of an infant’s heart, showing the potential to reduce one’s susceptibility of cardiovascular disease for a lifespan.However, as with all things, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about exercising while pregnant. Rima Mehta, MD, the director of Gynecology at Pennsylvania Hospital, helps us get the story straight:

Q.  Exercise and pregnancy – where to begin?

It all depends upon the woman’s individual situation. If she’s never exercised a day in her life, the time to start rigorously working out is not when she discovers she’s pregnant. We’ve all heard the following Mehta-Rimarecommendation:  “Be sure to consult with your doctor before you start any exercise program.” That’s sound advice. A woman needs to know if it’s safe to exercise especially if, for example, she has cervical problems or some forms of heart and lung disease.  For the experienced exerciser, it may be a matter of adjusting the type of workout and duration. 

Q. Are there any general guidelines for the average woman who wants to do be active during pregnancy?

A good starting point is 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week. For those how have never exercised or haven’t in a while, start with just five minutes a day and then build up endurance over time to 10 minutes, 15, etc., until 30 minutes a day is reached.  Women don’t need to drop lots of cash on expensive gym memberships, they just need to move. Take the stairs. Walk laps through the mall while shopping for baby clothes. Dance around the house to one’s favorite tunes. Try yoga. For yoga novices, I recommend a prenatal yoga class. There have been multiple studies showing the potential positive effects of yoga in a normal pregnancy and in 2012, a study in Preventive Medicine has shown that prenatal yoga has the potential to prevent pregnancy complications in high-risk pregnancies and improve fetal outcomes.

This isn’t hi-tech exercising, but it is very effective.

The experienced exerciser will most likely be able to continue working out at the same level during pregnancy, as long as she is feeling comfortable and her doctor approves. A woman’s tolerance for strenuous exercise, however, will most likely decrease as the pregnancy progresses. 

Experienced exercisers and athletes should also check with their doctors about specific types of activity to avoid during pregnancy because of safety issues such as contact sports like soccer, hockey and basketball. Other activities to avoid would scuba diving, exercising at high altitudes, lying flat on one’s back after the first trimester and any activities that include the risk of falling – biking, horseback riding, surfing, gymnastics, snow and water skiing.

Q. What about abdominal workouts? Are they safe to do while pregnant?

Yes! And because they help strengthen the pelvic floor and abdominal core, they are very beneficial throughout pregnancy, labor and delivery and recovery. Back pain is such a common problem during pregnancy. A strong core can help offset that. It’s important to keep in mind however, that exercises done flat on one’s back should be avoided after the first trimester. Standing or seating ab workouts are the best.

 Q. What about running and weight lifting?

According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, a runner can keep on running right up until going into labor as long as she feels okay and her doctor determines she and the pregnancy are healthy. However, this won’t be the time to break any speed or distance records. The important thing is for a woman to pay attention to how she feels. That covers everything from slowing down as the pregnancy progresses – to stopping when something doesn’t feel right and contacting the doctor.

Pregnant women should also be careful with certain types of repetitive movements, such as squats and deep lunges, to avoid the risk of joint injuries. A woman’s body produces the hormone relaxin during pregnancy which helps lubricate joints for easier labor but causes the joints to become too loose. And lax joints can be easily coaxed beyond their normal range of motion, which can cause injury.

Q. When should there be cause for concern?

Any pregnant woman who experiences vaginal bleeding should stop what she’s doing and contact her doctor right away. Other things to keep any eye out for while exercising include:  increased shortness of breath, chest pain, uneven or rapid heartbeat, dizziness, headache, fluid leaking from the vagina, decreased fetal movement, calf swelling or pain, and uterine contractions. If any of these symptoms occur while exercising, stop immediately, take note and write the following down to be discussed with your physician:  the exact activity that caused discomfort, how it felt, how severe the episode was and how long it lasted. Any of these symptoms that continue after a specific activity is stopped, warrant an immediate call to the doctor. 

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Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

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