I ran up until the eighth month of my pregnancy,” says fitness trainer and avid marathoner Fiona Marshall. While Marshall admits this level of exercise is unusual for most women, the desire to keep doing a physical activity she loves is not. “I’ve always been a runner. I love running. It’s a stress reliever for me and, when I was pregnant, I really needed it.”
Whether your feel-good fix comes from running, cycling, swimming or working out at the gym, you can keep it up during pregnancy as long as you get the green light from your physician or midwife first. In a healthy normal pregnancy, there are few real cautions around exercise, says Karen Nordahl, co-author of the book Fit to Deliver and practitioner of family medicine and obstetrics at BC Women’s Hospital in Vancouver. “Most of them are common sense.”
“What happens with activities like running is that women get to a point in their pregnancy — some during the second trimester, others closer to their due date — where they just don’t feel comfortable doing it anymore,” says Nordahl. “So they switch to another activity they feel more comfortable with.”
That’s what happened to Marshall. She gradually switched over to a run/walk system. “It really helps with breathing. So it’s great for the pregnant runner,” says Marshall. By modifying her routine this way, Marshall continued to run anywhere from five to 10 kilometres three times a week. When that no longer felt good, she quit and focused on strength training at the gym.
Many types of exercise besides running are safe for moms-to-be. Walking and swimming, which always provide a simple but effective workout, top the list. Read on to find out if your favourite activities get a green light, a proceed-with-caution warning or a stoplight during pregnancy.
Walking is a great way to exercise during pregnancy. “Anybody can do it,” says Michelle Mottola, director of the R. Samuel McLaughlin Foundation Exercise and Pregnancy Lab at the University of Western Ontario in London. What’s more, a brisk walk gives your body a total workout and is easy on your joints. “A lot of people don’t give walking credit,” says Mottola. They think that in order to get any kind of cardiovascular benefit, you need to slog it out at the gym and huff and puff. “That’s not true. Walking is a marvellous way to build up your heart and lung health.”
Swimming, unlike running, is an activity that may continue to feel good throughout your entire pregnancy. “It unloads your body,” says Patti Bishop, prenatal fitness specialist and owner of North Star Fitness in Vancouver. “My clients tell me that it feels as if they’re not pregnant — as if they’re weightless. So swimming feels great especially as you get larger.”
Yoga, Pilates and stretching are a go. Work with an instructor who’s knowledgeable about the needs of pregnancy and modify your routine to accommodate your growing belly. The hormone relaxin may make your ligaments more flexible than they were before pregnancy; when you’re doing poses or moves that involve stretching, you may be able to stretch further than usual. “Don’t go that far,” says Nordahl. “You can overstretch during pregnancy. Just go to whatever your pre-pregnancy limit was.”
Weight training can continue right up till you deliver. Mottola suggests pregnant women do a higher number of repetitions with lighter weights. “You want to have a comfortable weight and do about 15 to 20 repetitions. So you’re maintaining your muscle strength as opposed to building it.”
Cycling is OK, with a few caveats. “Obviously, we don’t want somebody mountain biking at 26 or 27 weeks. If you fall on the trails, your abdomen isn’t protected. But if you’re on an exercise bike in the gym, by all means, you can continue to term,” says Nordahl. You can also bike around the city or bike paths. But if your growing belly affects your balance as your pregnancy progresses, stick to stationary cycling to avoid potential spills.
Racquet sports, such as squash and tennis, have two drawbacks: the possibility of falls and the potential to overstress joints, explains Mottola. Relaxin loosens ligaments and makes joints more susceptible to injury during quick changes of direction. But if you really love your tennis, you may be able to modify your game during pregnancy by playing light games and not dashing all over the court.
Red light: Extreme sports
Skiing and skating are not recommended because there’s a risk of falling, says Mottola. Ditto for rollerblading. If there’s any chance balance may be an issue, forget it.
Team sports like soccer and hockey, where you may get bumped, tripped, or get a ball or puck to the abdomen, are not recommended.
Extreme sports like rock climbing, water skiing and skydiving during pregnancy are a definite no-no, warns Mottola. “Any sport where there’s a chance of falling is out. Whether you are in your first, second or third trimester, it doesn’t matter. You are putting your pregnancy at risk.”
You bet you can! Even if you’ve never exercised before, you can begin working out during pregnancy as long as your caregiver gives you the go-ahead. Here’s some advice from Michelle Mottola, director of the Exercise and Pregnancy Lab at the University of Western Ontario in London:
Start in the second trimester, when any fatigue or nausea is likely to have lifted. “A lot of women are feeling much better in the second trimester,” says Mottola. “So it’s the perfect time to start a lifestyle change.”
Keep it simple. Begin a walking program by walking briskly for 15 minutes. Add on two minutes every week. Once you hit 30 minutes, add a 10-minute warm-up and 10-minute cool-down of walking at a lower intensity, gradually building up to a total of 60 minutes a day. Wear a pedometer and count your steps. If you take 10,000 steps a day, you’re boosting your cardiovascular health, says Mottola.
Pump some iron. If you have access to a gym or personal trainer, start a beginner’s strength-training program.
Get with the program. Join a prenatal fitness or yoga class where you can work out and meet other moms-to-be.
Do’s and dont’s
• drink lots of water before, during and after exercise
• fuel up with a nutritional snack an hour before you work out
• dress in layers you can peel off as your body warms up
• wear good shoes to protect your joints and back
• exercise in warm or humid environments
• swim in pools heated above 30°C (85°F)
• hold your breath
• exercise lying on your back after 16 weeks of pregnancy
• do activities that involve physical contact or the danger of falling
• train for a competition during pregnancy
How can you tell if you’re overdoing it?
Give yourself the talk test. “You have to be able to say two sentences without being short of breath during the cardio, or exertion, phase of your exercise program,” says obstetrician Karen Nordahl. “So if you can’t say the two sentences, you’re working too hard, and if you can sing, you’re not working hard enough.”
Obey these stop signs
Consult your health care provider if you notice:
• uterine contractions
• vaginal bleeding
• gush of fluid from vagina
• abdominal pain
• swelling of ankles, hands or face
• calf pain or swelling
• dizziness or faintness
• chest pain or heart palpitations
• pronounced fatigue
• weight gain of less than one kilogram per month in second or third trimester
• decreased fetal movement
Source: PARmed-X for Pregnancy (Physical Activity Readiness Examination, supported by Health Canada).
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