What are the benefits of exercise during pregnancy?
During pregnancy your body undergoes lots of changes that can sometimes come with a number of common 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 and improve your sleep
- help constipation
- ease back pain
- improve your mood and wellbeing
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 exercises are best to do during pregnancy?
Aerobic and strengthening exercise
Try to 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. If you’ve never done strength training before, it’s important that you speak to a trained professional, such as a physiotherapist or gym instructor. They can show you the correct and safest techniques to use before attempting to lift weights on your own.
Swimming and aqua aerobics are good forms of exercise to do when you’re pregnant as the water helps to support your weight. Yoga and Pilates are also good types of exercise to do while you’re pregnant. But it’s best to go to classes specifically for pregnant women or to let your instructor know that you’re pregnant if you go to a general class. You shouldn’t do any moves that involve lying on your back for long periods of time. For more information on this, take a look at our section ‘Are there any risks?’ below.
If you regularly exercised before you got pregnant, you should be fine to carry on with most activities but you might want to lower the intensity. And if you feel unwell, stop or modify what you’re doing and see how you feel. It’s best to 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, start gently and build up gradually. But always remember to listen to your body and stop exercising should you feel any pain or discomfort.
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, it will also reduce the risk of problems, such as incontinence, after you give birth.
How to exercise your pelvic floor muscles
- Sit with your knees bent and slightly apart, with your feet on the floor. This is the easiest way to start – later on your can do them standing or lying down.
- Find the right muscles. One way is to imagine stopping yourself from passing urine or wind. It should feel like a ‘squeeze and lift’.
- First, do some slow contractions. Hold the muscles for about 10 seconds – don’t forget to breathe! Have a rest for four seconds and then repeat the contraction as many times as you can, up to a maximum of 10 times.
- Next, have a go at fast contractions. Draw your pelvic floor muscles upwards quickly and hold this for a second. Repeat this up to 10 times.
- Try to do one set of slow contractions followed by one set of fast contractions up to six times a day. But don’t over-do it – listen to your body and take it at your pace.
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.
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. Find out if there’s a class near you.
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."
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. You might also need to adapt to the different stages of pregnancy. If you’re unsure about what exercise to do, your midwife, physiotherapist or GP can give you advice.
Pregnancy workouts: first trimester
Exercise in early pregnancy can be challenging as this is the time when you’re most likely to feel sick (‘morning sickness’) and possibly more tired. 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 of two and editor in Bupa’s Health Content Team
Pregnancy workouts: second trimester
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 as you enter your second trimester. See our section ‘Are there any risks?’ below for more information.
Pregnancy workouts: third trimester
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 – they won’t harm your baby in any way. Yoga and Pilates classes specifically for pregnant women are good types of exercise to do.
"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 of two and Freelance Editor
Are there any risks?
If your exercise routine involves lots of high intensity exercise, it’s best to tone it down until after your pregnancy to be safe. We’ve put together information about some things to keep in mind when you’re pregnant.
When you’re pregnant, your body temperature may increase more than usual when you exercise.
It’s best not to exercise in hot or humid environments. Be sure to 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 you reach 12 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’s 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 do activities like horse riding, cycling or ice skating after your first trimester because of the risk of falling or losing your balance. And give contact sports a miss while you’re pregnant so you don’t bump your bump. You won’t be able to go scuba diving either. Put these activities 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:
- feeling dizzy or faint
- a headache
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain
- pain and swelling in your calf
- bleeding, or fluid coming from your vagina
- painful contractions
- your baby not moving as much as usual
How soon can I exercise after giving birth?
How soon you can get back to exercise after your baby is born and what activities you can do will depend on how things went for you. If you had a healthy pregnancy and you didn’t have any problems giving birth, it’s fine to do gentle exercise after just a few days.
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.
Bupa physiotherapist, Claire Fitzpatrick, gives more tips and advice in her blog: Return to exercise post pregnancy.
- Antenatal care for uncomplicated pregnancies. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). 26 March 2008. www.nice.org.uk
- Start active, stay active: infographics on physical activity. GOV.UK. www.gov.uk, last updated 29 June 2017
- Physical activity in pregnancy infographic: guidance. GOV.UK. www.gov.uk, last updated 29 June 2017
- Common problems in pregnancy. PatientPlus. patient.info/patientplus, last checked 5 May 2016
- Common pregnancy complaints and questions. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 31 May 2016
- Diabetes in pregnancy: management from preconception to the postnatal period. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). 25 February 2015. www.nice.org.uk
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- Physical activity and exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. www.acog.org, published December 2015
- Fit for pregnancy. Pelvic obstetric and gynaecological physiotherapy. www.csp.org.uk, published 2013
- Pelvic floor exercises in women. British Association of Urological Surgeons. www.baus.org.uk, published June 2017
- Mother's six-week postnatal check. PatientPlus. patient.info/patientplus, last checked 25 June 2014
- Pregnancy. Oxford handbook of general practice. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published April 2014
- Exercise after pregnancy. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. www.acog.org, published July 2015
- Nausea and vomiting in pregnancy - including hyperemesis gravidarum. PatientPlus. patient.info/patientplus, last checked 7 January 2016
- Personal communication, Lucy Roux, Physiotherapist at Bupa UK, 23 January 2018
- Your baby’s movements in pregnancy. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. www.rcog.org.uk, published August 2012
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Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, January 2018
Expert reviewer, Lucie Roux, Physiotherapist at Bupa UK
Next review due January 2021
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