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5 Tips for Exercising While Pregnant

First of all, congratulations on your growing bundle of joy! I know from personal experience that being pregnant can be incredibly exciting and overwhelming all at once. You want to do exactly the right thing at all times to give your unborn baby the very best you can offer. So what is the “right thing to do” in terms of exercise?

One of the most common messages or calls I get is, “Hi Lisa, I've just found out I'm pregnant, my friend says that Pilates is good for preggie ladies, I’d love to join your advanced online class tomorrow” while this may seem like the right thing to do, when you are expecting there are a few things that need to be adjusted or addressed in your regular routines and one should always be attending a prenatal specific class.

While this blog refers to the 5 ways to adapt your workout when expecting, we have other blogs on the benefits of exercising while pregnant and the top 10 exercises that (almost) every mother-to-be can do.

Tip #1: Get the Go Ahead & Make it Properly Prenatal

The number one tip is to check in with your midwife, doctor or other health professional to let them know you are interested in starting or continuing a certain exercise regime. They will be able to analyse your changing body ( and growing baby ) and identify if there are any contraindications to you beginning a program or taking a class. If you have been given the all clear it is important that you tell your instructor or trainer about your pregnancy as soon as possible, it may not be common knowledge yet, but your instructor, who is working with your body, needs to know.

Once you have told your fitness family you can start to attend specifically prenatal classes or workouts. I know you may not feel very different physically especially in the beginning, because there is no big tummy yet, but your body is undergoing many internal and functional changes ( hello morning sickness ), we need to respect the mammoth task our body is undertaking and ensure that we do everything to let it run as smoothly as possible.

Now is not the time to set new goals, or aim for more from your workout, for right now your job is to grow a healthy baby and look after your own body as best you can.

Generally the acceptable types of exercises available to preggy moms include; swimming, walking, prenatal Pilates or prenatal Yoga and in most cases you can continue with your usual daily activities for the duration of your pregnancy, as you feel comfortable doing them.

The hard and fast ‘no-no’s’ when it comes to moving while pregnant include; no contact sports, no activities that have a risk of falling or trauma such as horse riding, skiing or rock climbing, no exercising in high altitudes or too far below sea level such as scuba diving.

Read more on contraindications, precautions and when to stop exercising here

Tip #2: Change your Position

While most exercise methods are appropriate for pregnancy there are various modifications and adaptations that need to be made in order to ensure that it is safe and useful for a preggy mom.

Generally when we are pregnant the “goal” of exercising changes, we are now looking at how to support the body during and after pregnancy, prepare for labour and delivery and to ensure that you will have the best possible functionality post-partum. So certain exercises need to be focused on while others need to be left out all together.

Aside from us re-evaluating our goals and outcomes, we also need to look at how your body is changing during pregnancy and what we need to address in our movement patterns to make sure you and the baby are safe.

  • Don’t exercise lying on your back

Lying supine ( on your back ) while pregnant places pressure on your inferior vena cava ( big vein running through your pelvis ) because of the weight of the baby but also the weight of the growing placenta and expanding uterus. Lying on your back for periods of time can lead to Supine Hypertensive Syndrome, which is a loss of blood both to the mom and baby, resulting in a problematic drop in blood pressure for the mom and can have effects on the baby as well.

Always ensure you have some form of support when on the mat, such as a wedge, or that you are at an angle such as leaning up on your elbows during ‘supine’ type exercises. I personally leave it out altogether but a wedge, arc barrel or spine corrector are all appropriate Pilates tools that can be used to keep you at an incline during exercise.

  • Avoid exercises lying on your tummy

While I admittedly don’t know much of the scientific or medical reasons for not lying on your tummy while pregnant, I can talk from personal experience that from very early on I felt a deep sense of weariness and discomfort around lying on my tummy while I knew there was a little something trying to grow in there. From a quick Google search many articles agree with me, there is not too much direct medical advice available but most indicate that preggy moms don't like lying on their tummies. From some sites it suggested it can increase heartburn, while most agreed that it can exacerbate lower back pain, pelvic girdle pain and neck pain.

  • Limit time spent in certain positions

During your pregnancy the body produces a hormone called Relaxin, this is responsible for the relaxing of the uterus walls, abdominals and pelvic ligaments and muscles, to accommodate a rapidly growing baby. However, and unfortunately our body cannot isolate where that hormone goes, so it starts to relax ALL muscles. The consequences of this is that certain joints are affected and compromised by not having a quality structural foundation in the form of strong ligaments and muscles. So that knee niggle you've always had or your wrists that are already a little sensitive will generally become much more pronounced during pregnancy. Therefore we try to limit the time spent in any one position, such as in a four point kneeling position ( hands and knees ) to protect the joints such as the wrists. Another point to make here is that one should limit any fast transitions or change in directions ( think Zumba classes ) twisting or swivelling on the knees and ankles when they are less secure can lead to joint pain and sometimes even damage. This also applies to any over stretching, you may feel like the elastic women with your super supple muscles but watch out for overstretching which can also lead to ligament and joint problems. Rule is to slow down on deep stretches and generally I like to encourage the moms that if you couldn't stretch so far before your pregnancy, then don't start now.

  • Watch your balance

With the ever expanding tummy often our centre of gravity is affected, thus throwing off our sense of balance. That coupled with relaxed muscles can make balancing tricky. Make sure to stand near a stable support, such as a wall, when doing any balance exercises. In fact with my preggy clients I ALWAYS have them stand near to a wall when exercising just in case. Very often moms-to-be may feel dizzy or light headed and the last thing we ever want is a pregnant mom falling.

Tip #3: Stop crunching your abs ( but you can still work your core )

So we all want to keep our physique for as long as possible during, and after, our pregnancy so many moms opt for flexion ab workouts, this is perhaps the worst thing you can do while working out during your pregnancy ( aside from lying on your back ). The reasons for this are twofold ; firstly, we have that relaxin hormone in the body relaxing all of our muscles and compromising certain areas of the body, secondly we have huge amounts of intra abdominal pressure pushing against the muscles and stretching our linea alba , the piece of connective tissue running between the left and right side of our superficial abdominal muscle group, the rectus abdominis ( 6 pack muscles ).

When we do activities such as crunching the abdominals we create additional pressure on this already compromised bit of connective tissue, thus potentially leading to an ‘overstretching’ of the tissue, this is commonly referred to as Diastasis Recti. Diastasis recti, is when the gap between the left and right side of the abdominals becomes pronounced, if left untreated it can create certain structural and functional problems.

So what can we do then in order to strengthen our abdominals and ‘core’ during pregnancy? Strengthening the deeper abdominal layers and pelvic muscles such as the transverse abdominis ( TA ) and the pelvic floor can have huge benefits before, during and after your pregnancy. In fact, having a strong TA and pelvic floor can help to address the potential separation of the rectus abdominis ( diastasis recti ), it can also alleviate back pain and pelvic girdle pain during and after pregnancy and limit any pelvic floor dysfunction.

Learning to work the TA and connect with the pelvic floor is at the heart of any Pilates class, however, during pregnancy we have to remember that we need to do this without lying on our back, without crunching the abdominal and without staying in the same position for long periods of time. This is why it is important to attend a class or workout with someone who is specifically trained in prenatal classes or a class that is designed for pregnancy.

Tip #4: Focus on the right muscles

So during this blog we have focused quite a bit on what you CAN’T do, which seems rather overwhelming, but never fear there are many movements and areas of the body that we can, and should be focusing on.

I always say to my preggy moms in class “you will all have the best bums and arms you've ever had after your preggy classes”, this is because it's some of the safest areas to work but also some of the most important. Keeping the ‘core’ muscles strong, as I mentioned above, helps to alleviate certain aches and pains and also prepares the body for labour, and the post-partum period. Core muscles aside from the abdominals also include the muscles of the pelvis, lower back, hips and glutes. Therefore it is a good idea to include some safe hip and bum exercises into any of your routines.

When designing my prenatal workouts I also think about functionality, what is this moms body going to have to do, now, later on in their pregnancy and after they have given birth. One of the most significant answers to these questions is that the expectant mom is going to need to be able to care for a baby when they give birth. This seems obvious but as a fitness professional, I have to look at muscle movements, posture and potential muscle imbalances. Once the baby is out in the real world, all you are going to be doing is holding, carrying, changing and feeding your bundle of joy. From a postural position this can be summarised in one simple term forward flexion ( or as I like to put it the question mark position ? ). The muscles of the upper back get lengthened and potentially weakened by all of the rounding forward and on the converse the muscles of the chest get tight and short.

Therefore the best way we can prepare for the carrying and bending forward is to work the arms, upper back and shoulder girdle. To provide the best foundation that we can to avoid any pain or postural changes later on. I always include some shoulder girdle work, working with a band is great for these, I also like to include a weight-free arm series into any routine I plan, to ensure mommies have the strongest arms possible ( without having to lift heavy weights which can come with its own preggy related contraindications ), and probably most importantly I include safe chest opening stretches into the sequence.

Again, if you are attending a preggy specific class these areas should be covered but if you are working out at home on your own, perhaps doing some research into appropriate arm and back exercises is advisable.

Tip #5: Adapt for you Trimester ( and yourself )

Lastly, we need to remember that there is constant change in pregnancy as the hormones surge, dissipate and regulate at different times, rates and periods during your 40 week journey. We also need to remember that every single mom is different and has a different experience during pregnancy. Some moms get morning sickness, others don’t, some moms have severe back, neck, hip, public bone or other pains, while others don’t. I personally could not do a shell stretch ( a typical stretch in a Pilates class ) while pregnant, even though it is listed as a preggy safe move. I also had immense pelvic girdle pain especially during my second pregnancy which resulted in most standing exercises being excruciating which is not something most moms experience but if it is you then you will know how painful it can be.

It is advisable to read and ask your medical professional questions regularly, not just at the beginning of the pregnancy but as you continue through the journey as advice may change along the way, as your body undergoes various changes. It is important to remember that not all changes are visible. Very often the most pronounced changes, and the ones that can have the deepest impact on your health and fitness, are happening internally ( think hormone production, cardiovascular changes and mood and energy levels ) so not all adaptions are made purely on your tummy’s appearance.

I will be writing a further blog on the physical changes that happen in each trimester and how that can affect your movement soon.

So while exercising during pregnancy comes with an abundance of benefits both for you and your growing bump, it is important to remember that you should be mindful of the seen and unseen changes happening in the body. Pregnancy is a beautiful journey ( although sometimes challenging ) and right now that should be your body's main focus. Keep moving, but in a way that will support your body at this time.

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