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Baby on the way? What to know about exercising while pregnant

Follow these dos and don'ts to reap the benefits of exercise during pregnancy while also staying safe.

pregnant woman sitting on yoga mat

Exercising while pregnant has many benefits -- but you need to do it the safe way.

JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Pregnancy is a time filled with tons of change -- almost everything in your life is shifting toward a new baby on the way. And if you're wondering how your fitness routine fits in, congrats. The fact that you are prioritizing your fitness and well-being is a step in the right direction of a healthier pregnancy and baby. But when it comes to exercising while pregnant or postpartum, the rules aren't always so clear.

To shed more light on the dos and don'ts of exercising while pregnant or postpartum, I talked to Brooke Cates, CEO and founder of Studio Bloom, a pre- and postnatal fitness studio.

A caveat: Always talk to your doctor to make sure you are cleared to exercise, no matter what phase of pregnancy you are in or if you just had a baby.  

Benefits of exercise during pregnancy 

Pregnant women and new moms are prone to unique health issues like incontinence and diastasis recti, a condition where two of the large abdominal muscles separate due to pregnancy. Staying active with the right kind of safe exercise is key to preventing these problems. 

"The more expecting women are willing to pivot their workouts, while still being challenged, the more likely they are to feel stronger during pregnancy and avoid injuries such as incontinence, prolapse, and injury-based diastasis recti," says Cates. 

"For pregnancy, the benefits [of exercise] to both mom and baby are endless," Cates adds. According to Cates, exercise may help increase stamina during labor and birth, decrease the need for birth interventions and help mom recover faster, especially if the exercise is focused on proper core training. 

According to Mayo Clinic, other benefits of exercise during pregnancy may include:

  • Reduced risk of requiring a C-section 
  • Reduced risk of gestational diabetes
  • Shorter labor period

The dos and don'ts of exercising while pregnant 

Before you start or continue an exercise routine while pregnant, always talk to your doctor to get cleared for any activity. There's a lot happening in your body when you're pregnant, which means the exercise routine you did pre-pregnancy might need to change too. 

"As your belly/baby grows throughout the 9 months, it's as if you have an internal weight vest that's constantly getting heavier attached to your body. With so much change happening to our midsection, our spinal/pelvic stability, core and pelvic floor all require us to shift the way we connect to our changing body both in exercise and everyday movements," says Cates.

Some of those changes include the ways you'll approach certain exercises like core work, and sometimes you'll need to shift the entire workout, depending on what it is. 

Modifying core movements 

Your core and pelvic floor are crucial to pay attention to since these muscles are taxed the most during pregnancy. "These inner systems are under the most strain throughout pregnancy and experience the most weakness immediately postpartum. Modifying exercises like full prone planks (and full plank variations), large jumping exercises, standard crunches and sit ups or side crunching moves that target the obliques are important to protect the core and pelvic floor from unnecessary injury," says Cates. 

When you're learning to modify your exercises, it's best to work with a trainer who is certified in pre and postnatal fitness, especially with core moves. "Modification doesn't mean 'don't do exercises like this,' it simply means to find a supportive way to perform these moves that supports your growing belly, the extra weight on the pelvic floor, and the weakened connective tissue that spans the midline of the abdomen," says Cates. 

pregnant woman doing yoga

Consult your doctor before doing any exercise to make sure it's safe for you.

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

Exercises to avoid

The general rule for working out while pregnant is to not start a new type of exercise that you didn't do before you were pregnant. Cates echoes that this is true, in most cases. "There is rarely a reason a woman should stop moving her body the way she is used to, unless recommended by her birth team/doctor due to pregnancy-related issues," says Cates.

"While pregnancy is not the time to start pushing your body in crazy new ways, it is OK and safe to tap into workouts that include light weights and low intensity," says Cates. Examples of these types of workouts include Pilates, yoga and gentle hikes or walks. 

Other exercises to avoid, according to Cates and Mayo Clinic

  • Potentially dangerous sports like skiing, wakeboarding, skydiving or snowboarding since there is a high risk for injury
  • Scuba diving
  • Contact sports (e.g., hockey, soccer, basketball, volleyball)
  • High-altitude exercise
  • Heated exercise like hot yoga or hot Pilates 

Signs you need to stop exercising 

Always listen to your body while exercising, and take breaks or stop if you feel that you're pushing too hard. You need to stop and contact your doctor if any of the following things happen while exercising:

  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Increased shortness of breath before you start exercising 
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How to ease back into fitness post-baby  

After giving birth, be sure to discuss with your doctor when you can exercise again as this will vary from woman to woman. Generally, if you deliver a baby vaginally you can begin exercising sooner than if you had a C-section, but other factors and complications can change this. 

"Have a recovery plan to begin as soon as you feel mentally and physically ready for it postpartum. Know that there is no one exercise or a one size fits all model that will help you rehab and build a strong foundation required for those more challenging exercises you crave," says Cates. 

Remember to take things slow, and consider the huge experience your body just went through.

"Refusing to slowly rehab your body while progressing your strength through smart techniques, exercises, and mobility techniques before jumping back into your normal fitness routine can set you back in a much bigger way than you can imagine," says Cates. A better approach is to build a solid foundation and take care of your body while you recover from having a baby. "By rebuilding your foundation first, you can meet strength goals that exceed that which you held pre-pregnancy," says Cates. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.