What are the benefits of physical activity during pregnancy?
During pregnancy your body undergoes certain changes that can come hand in hand with a number of health problems. The good news is that regular exercise can help to relieve some of these pregnancy-related niggles. It may help to:
- reduce tiredness
- help constipation
- ease lower back pain
- reduce varicose veins
- lessen any swelling of your ankles and feet
- reduce stress and anxiety
- improve your sleep
Get in shape before you get pregnant and keep up the good work through your pregnancy. You’ll feel the benefit – it will help you to carry the extra weight and prepare you for labour.
Exercise can also help to prevent some health problems related to pregnancy such as:
- gestational diabetes
- high blood pressure
If you do develop gestational diabetes, keeping active can help to improve your symptoms.
What types of exercise can I do during pregnancy?
Aerobic and strengthening exercise
Do a mixture of aerobic and strengthening exercise during pregnancy.
- Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking or swimming, uses oxygen, raises your heart rate and makes you slightly breathless. It also improves your level of fitness.
- Strength training involves moving your muscles against some kind of resistance, such as free weights or your own body weight. This will also help to improve your posture and balance.
Swimming and aqua aerobics are good forms of exercise to do during pregnancy as the water helps to support your weight. It’s not known how safe activities such as yoga and t’ai chi are during pregnancy. If you do these, make sure you let your instructor know that you’re pregnant.
If you regularly exercised before you got pregnant, you should be fine to carry on but you might want to lower the intensity. Take a break from any competitive events while you’re pregnant.
If you haven’t been active for a while, or are thinking of doing something new, speak to your midwife, physiotherapist or GP. They can give you some advice on how to get started as it’s important to build up gradually.
Pelvic floor exercises
Exercises to work your pelvic floor may help to strengthen the muscles that will be stretched during pregnancy and childbirth. Your pelvic floor muscles support your bladder, bowel and womb and help them to work properly. When you’re pregnant, they help to support your baby and it’s important to keep these muscles strong. Not only will it help you during labour but will also reduce the risk of problems, such as incontinence, after you give birth.
How to exercise your pelvic floor muscles
- Sit or lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet on the floor. v
- Find the right muscles. One way is to imagine stopping yourself from passing urine or wind. It should feel like a ‘squeeze and lift’.
- Hold these muscles for five seconds – don’t forget to breathe.
- Rest for five seconds and repeat 10 times.
- Try holding for a longer count as the exercise gets easier.
Pilates offers a range of health benefits and it’s very adaptable. You can work to a level that suits you and in positions that are comfortable. Many women find Pilates helpful throughout their pregnancy and after they give birth too, as it can improve muscle strength and tone.
Emily Partridge, mum and Bupa Lead Physiotherapist and Pilates instructor advises:
"Pilates can help women improve their posture, balance and coordination. This is great for lots of reasons both during and after pregnancy. Pilates is one way of building up the strength of your pelvic floor and core muscles. This may help reduce the risk of low back pain and incontinence both during and after pregnancy. It may also make it easier to get back to a pre-pregnancy level of activity."
If you join an antenatal Pilates class, the instructor will give you exercises that meet your individual needs and ability.
Some Bupa centres hold ante- and postnatal Pilates classes, which are led by physiotherapists and health advisers. To find out if there’s a class near you, visit www.bupa.co.uk/pilates.
What exercise can I do in each trimester?
Pregnancy affects every woman differently so when it comes to exercise, there are no hard and fast rules. Again, your midwife, physiotherapist or GP can give you more advice.
This is the time when you’re most likely to feel sick (‘morning sickness’) and possibly more tired than usual. Your blood pressure may be lower than usual during this time, which can mean you’re more at risk of fainting. The changes your body’s going through may well influence how energetic you feel, as well as how motivated you are to exercise. Listen to your body and don’t do more than you feel able to.
If you do feel up to exercising, that’s great. Your baby is well protected within your body at this stage of pregnancy so it’s safe to do most sports.
"When I was in the early days of pregnancy I felt really tired. I mainly stuck to walking and a Pilates class once a week until I got my energy back." Alice, mum and editor in Bupa’s Health Content Team
Once you reach your second trimester, you’ll probably feel much more yourself again as tiredness and morning sickness tend to ease by now. Although some types of exercise aren’t sensible to do, in general, stick with what you enjoy as long as you feel safe and pain-free.
It’s best not to do any exercise that involves lying on your back from this time onwards (see Are there any risks? for more information).
By the third trimester, you’ll be carrying considerably more weight as your developing baby grows. It’s almost inevitable that as a result you’ll feel more tired and it may be awkward to exercise with your bump. Although research has found that continuing to exercise during pregnancy isn’t harmful, you may find that aerobic activity isn’t practical. If you can, try to keep up some stretching and relaxation exercises.
"I tried to keep as active as I could by doing my normal walk as part of my daily commute. I just had to slow down a bit towards the end of my pregnancy." Pippa, mum and editor in Bupa’s Health Content Team
Are there any risks?
If your exercise routine involves pounding the streets in your running shoes with the odd kickboxing class thrown in, you’ll need to tone it down. We’ve put together information about some things to keep in mind when you’re pregnant.
When you’re pregnant, your body temperature increases more than usual when you exercise.
Don’t exercise in hot or humid environments and drink enough water so that you don’t feel thirsty. Don’t do more than you feel comfortable doing – listen to your body.
Exercise that involves lying on your back
As your baby grows, it isn’t good for you to exercise while lying on your back. The rationale behind this is that the baby could press on your main vein and reduce how much blood can get back to your heart. This could cause low blood pressure.
After 16 weeks of pregnancy, don’t do any exercise that involves lying on your back.
When you’re pregnant, your body produces a hormone that causes your ligaments and tendons to soften and become more elastic. This can increase your risk of injury because your joints are looser. Although you may find you’re more flexible, there is less support for your joints and you may find it more difficult to balance.
You can reduce your risk of injury by warming up and cooling down properly, and not making sudden changes of direction when you’re exercising.
Don’t go horse riding, cycling or ice skating after your first trimester because of the risk of falling or losing your balance. And don’t do contact sports as they carry a risk of being hit in the tummy (abdomen). Put these on hold until after you have your baby.
When should I stop exercising?
There are certain warning signs that you shouldn’t ignore. If you develop any of the following symptoms while exercising, stop and get in touch with your midwife or GP as soon as possible.
- Dizziness or feeling faint.
- A headache.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Pain in your tummy (abdomen), calf, pelvis or back.
- Bleeding coming from your vagina.
- Difficulty walking.
- Your baby not moving as much as usual.
How soon can I exercise after giving birth?
You may have questions about getting back to exercise after your baby is born: how soon and what activities, for example. If you had a healthy pregnancy and you didn’t have any problems giving birth, it’s fine to do gentle exercise straight away.
Walking is a great way to start, and, as you feel ready, gradually build up to the level of exercise you used to do. Pilates can be useful for maintaining core muscle strength and may also work your pelvic floor muscles. See a Pilates instructor or physiotherapist for advice about which exercises are safe to do and after what time, as this can vary.
The key thing is not to try to do too much too soon – listen to your body. And if you had a caesarean delivery, it’s best to wait until your six-week check with your GP before getting back to anything strenuous. You can still go for walks and do pelvic floor exercises during this time.
Ask your midwife or GP for advice and information if you’re thinking of starting something new.
- Fit and safe: exercise in the childbearing year. Pelvic Obstetric Gynaecological Physiotherapy. http://pogp.csp.org.uk, published 2013
- Antenatal care. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), March 2008. www.nice.org.uk
- Exercise in pregnancy. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. www.rcog.org.uk, published January 2006
- Common problems of pregnancy. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/doctor, reviewed 10 July 2013
- Physical activity guidelines for adults (19–64 years). Department of Health. www.gov.uk, published July 2011
- Antenatal care. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/doctor, reviewed 13 October 2012
- Pelvic floor exercises in women. British Association of Urological Surgeons. www.baus.org.uk, published July 2014
- Pelvic floor exercises how-to guide: pregnancy and beyond. National Childbirth Trust. www.nct.org.uk, accessed 11 June 2015
- Good exercises and sports in pregnancy. National Childbirth Trust. www.nct.org.uk, accessed 8 June 2015
- Nausea and vomiting in pregnancy – including hyperemesis gravidarum. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/doctor, reviewed 12 December 2012
- Physiological changes in pregnancy. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/doctor, reviewed 25 January 2013
- Pregnancy exercises – safety checklist. National Childbirth Trust. www.nct.org.uk, accessed 11 June 2015
- Your baby’s movements in pregnancy. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. www.rcog.org.uk, published August 2012
- Bø K, Herbert RD. There is not yet strong evidence that exercise regimens other than pelvic floor muscle training can reduce stress urinary incontinence in women: a systematic review. J Physiother 2013; 59(3):159–68. doi:10.1016/S1836-9553(13)70180-2
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Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Content Team, July 2015.
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