From the second you find out you’re expecting, you become a mother. A mama bear, with an innate, in-built protection mechanism to ensure the safety of the tiny human growing inside you.
Like anything new, there are certain challenges that come with pregnancy – hormones that make your ligaments stretchy and joints clicky (not to mention the emotional hormonal rollercoaster) sleep deprivation, nausea, lack of energy, significant body changes and societal pressure; not to mention other general life stresses. These factors undoubtedly affect our attitudes and behaviours toward exercise and health during pregnancy. Which is why I was so surprised at the controversy surrounding exercise during pregnancy and the number of questions nobody really has an answer to.
What exercise is ‘safe’ for me and baby?
Are there specific exercises I should avoid?
Is it important to do my pelvic floor exercises?
My personal experience
After some investigation and my own experience, I’d like to share a few thoughts which I hope you find helpful!
I went into pregnancy the attitude that – you know your body best and with the right knowledge, you are completely capable of pushing yourself within your own limits.
Mums-to-be are wrapped in cotton wool – scared to lift the groceries out of the car or a full washing basket off the floor.
I think we should be nurturing strong, capable mamas who are well-prepared for labour and for the demands of being a mum once baby arrives.
Some caution is necessary…
Now is probably not the time to take up ice hockey or marathon running, but you can apply some logical reasoning in terms of what your body is conditioned to do prior to falling pregnant and modify the exercise as needed.
For both my mental and physical health, my pre- and during pregnancy exercise was strength training. I’m lucky – I had an easy pregnancy; with only mild morning sickness from weeks 6-12, an annoying need to pee more during the day, and intermittent lower back pain from my compact (but heavy!) growing belly. Training 4-5 days a week until the day before I went into labour was great for me.
I believe the ease of my recovery post-delivery came down to maintaining consistency with training while pregnant. Now, this exercise regime was right for me but will not necessarily be right for you. My heart goes out to women who are limited with exercise during pregnancy if they want to be more active; to be limited in the exercise I do would be hard for me physically and physiologically.
What I have learned
I’ve learned that things you never had to think twice about before falling pregnant, like sneezing without wetting yourself or getting out of bed without grunting and a five-point turn now require a lot more consideration. Pre-activating your pelvic floor before a cough or sneeze works wonders (there’s even a name for this – “the knack”) and if you roll on to your side, lock your legs together and then sit up to get out of bed, this is much better for reducing any abdominal separation. Despite having what I considered a strong core, I developed a large abdominal separation or DRAM. I stopped doing any abdominal curls or lying abdominal work very early and had to modify any exercise where I felt my abdominals pulling apart.
The separation was measured regularly, and I wore a Tubigrip for support most days. At my widest point, above my belly button, I was measuring about 5cm on curl up and a scary 13cm at rest. I wore a three-strap abdominal binder following the birth, which absolutely healed accelerate my recovery as well as supporting my achy lower back.
Getting back on track
Although I am a long way off a flat tummy and a six-pack, I am now doing specific core strengthening exercises under the guidance of my physio and continue to see slow but definite improvements in abdominal tone and strength.
Despite there being no clear answer as to what ‘safe’ exercise during pregnancy looks like, there are a few guidelines we can follow. The British Journal of Sports Medicine advises that all exercise recommendations must be individualised based on the mother’s pre-pregnancy activity levels, and that there must be frequent close monitoring of both mum and baby’s well-being throughout. My ‘safe exercise’ consisted of pelvic floor exercises (most days), squats, upper back strengthening, pulldowns and lunges BUT other than pelvic floor strengthening, this is not what I would recommend for everyone. Recommendations on exercise during pregnancy are: to exercise for 150 minutes per week at an exertion level of moderate which is slightly out of breath but can still talk.
Tips for Exercising while pregnant
– seek clearance from your GP or health professional to start/continue exercising
– stay hydrated and nourished both during and afterwards
– identify what exercise works for you (under the guidance of a Physio or trainer)
– strengthen specific muscles to support your growing belly and breasts ie. Upper and lower back
– listen to your body – if it doesn’t feel great, don’t do it
– avoid any exercises o your back from week 16
– ensure you don’t get too hot or out of breath
– take your time when changing positions to avoid dizziness and blood pressure changes
– try to do your pelvic floor exercises daily
– enjoy yourself and have fun!
Stop if you feel any of the symptoms below
Shortness of breath prior to exercise
Calf pain / swelling
Amniotic fluid leakage
It is important to stop immediately if you experience any urinary incontinence or pain/discomfort during exercise. Remember that every pregnant woman is so different and therefore safe exercise is also very different for everyone. Provided you have been cleared by your pelvic health physio or your GP, the best advice I can give in terms of pregnancy-safe exercise is listen to your body and do what feels right for you.