Exercising when you're expecting

Q: "Is it OK to exercise while I'm pregnant? What types of exercise are OK, and what precautions should I take?"

Answered by Darla Richardson, D.O., family medicine and obstetrics, Providence Medical Group-Sunnyside

Not only is it OK to exercise when you're expecting — it's highly recommended. In addition to all the good things that exercise does for your body in general, it can help you minimize and cope with the challenges of pregnancy in a multitude of ways:
  • Exercise strengthens muscles and builds endurance, both of which are helpful during labor.
  • Studies show that exercise helps reduce backaches, a common complaint during pregnancy.
  • Exercise helps reduce constipation, another side effect of pregnancy.
  • It reduces the ankle swelling and bloating that are common during pregnancy.
  • It can increase your energy level and reduce that run-down feeling that many women experience during the later stages of pregnancy.
  • It helps improve mood.
  • Some studies show that exercise reduces the risk of postpartum depression.
  • It helps you sleep better, especially toward the end of a pregnancy when it's hard to get comfortable.
  • Studies suggest that exercise may help prevent or treat gestational diabetes.
  • Last but not least, exercising throughout pregnancy makes it significantly easier to get back into shape afterwards.
Here are some guidelines for exercising safely while you are pregnant:

Get your OB's OK. It's very important to talk with your obstetrician before starting a new exercise program or continuing your usual routine. Every pregnancy is different, and your doctor can tell you if there are any special precautions you should take based on your own personal pregnancy and health history. If you are severely underweight, have high blood pressure or have a history of pre-term labor, or if your fetus is not growing as expected, your doctor will most likely advise you not to exercise during your pregnancy.

Are you new to exercise? Start with baby steps. If you weren't much of an exerciser before, this is a good time to start, for all the reasons just mentioned. Begin very slowly and gently, easing into it with five minutes of walking daily. Increase your time gradually, letting your body's energy level be your guide. A good goal to shoot for is 30 minutes of moderate, low-impact activity on most days of the week.

Are you a seasoned athlete? Keep it up. If you are accustomed to vigorous exercise and your obstetrician has given you the green light to continue, it's generally fine to keep up your usual pace as long as you feel up to it. If you feel more fatigued than usual, take the pace down a notch.

Take a timeout from contact sports and risky activities. Avoid contact sports such as basketball, soccer and hockey, which could put you at risk for a blow to the belly. The same goes for activities that raise the risk of falling, such as horseback riding and downhill skiing. And if you are an adrenaline junky, take a break from risky activities — now is not the time for scuba diving, skydiving and bungee jumping.

Feeling too big and bulky for exercise? Head for the pool. Many women find swimming and water aerobics to be the most comfortable way to exercise while pregnant, especially in those last, heavy months. The water takes the weight of the baby off of your back and legs for a while, letting you move more freely for a good workout.

Be aware of relaxing while exercising. When you are pregnant, your body releases more relaxin, a hormone that, just as it sounds, relaxes certain muscles to prepare you for childbirth. In many women, it loosens the ligaments and joints, too, which can increase the risk of injuries during exercise. Be aware of this, and go a little gentler on your joints.

Know when to quit. Stop exercising and call your obstetrician if you experience any of these symptoms:
  • Vaginal bleeding or leaking of fluid
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling like you're going to faint
  • Contractions
  • Any noticeable slowing or ceasing of the baby's movement after exercise
With your OB's OK, try your best to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. Exercise will help with your delivery and will improve the way you feel throughout your pregnancy. And when you keep it up afterward, you'll not only be a healthier, more energetic mom — you'll set a wonderful example for your child.