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Exercising during and after pregnancy


Expert reviewer Karen O’Hara, Women’s Health and MSK Physiotherapist at Bupa, and Dr Ade Adeniyi, Bupa GP
Next review due December 2023

When you’re pregnant, being active is important for both you and your baby. It can help to keep you both healthy and it’s safe for your developing baby. Being active after your baby is born has lots of benefits too. What’s important is to choose the right types of activity as your body changes.

Please note that exercise advice may be different if you have any complications during your pregnancy.

a pregnant woman on an exercise mat

What are the benefits of exercise during pregnancy?

There are lots of benefits to being active when you’re pregnant. It can help you manage pregnancy health problems, reduce your chances of developing some conditions and have benefits during labour and the birth.

Being active can help to:

  • improve your sleep
  • ease back pain
  • improve your mood and wellbeing and help to prevent depression
  • prevent diabetes in pregnancy (gestational diabetes)
  • prevent high blood pressure problems
  • manage your blood sugar levels if you develop diabetes when you’re pregnant
  • gain less weight

How much exercise should I do during pregnancy?

If you were regularly active before you got pregnant, you should be fine to carry on with most activities at a similar level. As your body starts to change and you go through the different stages of pregnancy, you’ll probably need to adapt what you do. In the early stages of pregnancy, many women feel very tired so you may not feel like doing much exercise. If you have morning sickness, you might not feel much like it either.

Other symptoms, such as back pain, sore breasts and heartburn can all affect how you feel about exercising too.

"When I was in the early days of pregnancy, I felt really tired. I mainly stuck to walking and a yoga class once a week until I got my energy back." Alice, mum of two.

Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you feel unwell, stop, or change what you’re doing and see how you feel. If you’re an athlete, you should get expert advice about exercise 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. You shouldn’t start doing any vigorous activity or exercise if you don’t usually exercise. If you’re unsure about what exercise to do, your midwife, physiotherapist or GP can give you advice.

If you can, aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate activity each week. You can do that in short bursts of 10 minutes each if that works best for you, and any amount of exercise is better than none at all. Any kind of activity counts, including walking, carrying the shopping, gardening and housework.

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What kind of exercises should I be doing?

Aerobic and strengthening exercise

Try to do a mixture of cardiovascular (aerobic) activity and strengthening exercise during pregnancy.

  • Cardiovascular activity, such as brisk walking or swimming, makes your muscles and heart work harder. If you’re doing this type of activity at a moderate level, you should be out of breath but still able to talk.
  • Strengthening exercises help to strengthen your muscles and bones. You get the most out of strength exercises if you do them twice a week. You can do activities like lifting light weights, aerobics and circuit training. If you’ve never done strength training before, it’s a good idea to speak to a trained professional, such as a physiotherapist or gym instructor before you start. They can show you how to do these exercises safely.

Swimming and aqua aerobics are good forms of exercise to do when you’re pregnant. The water helps to support your weight, there is less chance of injuring yourself and being in the water can help you relax.

Yoga and gentle stretching exercise such as Pilates are also good. Try going 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.

Emily Partridge, Lead Physiotherapist at Bupa, Pilates instructor and mum, 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.”

Pelvic floor exercises

Your pelvic floor muscles form a sling across the base of your pelvis, supporting your bladder, bowel and womb and keeping them in place. When you’re pregnant, they help to support your baby and it’s important to keep these muscles strong. Exercising these muscles may also reduce the chances of developing incontinence before and 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 usually the easiest way to start – later your can do them standing or lying down.
  • Find the right muscles. One way to do this is to imagine stopping yourself from passing wind (farting) and peeing. It should feel like a ‘squeeze and lift’.
  • First, do some slow contractions. To start with, hold the muscles for about five 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. Try to work up to holding the muscles for 10 seconds if you can.
  • 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.

Are there any risks?

Being active throughout your pregnancy is low risk for most women with an uncomplicated pregnancy. But as your pregnancy progresses and your body changes, you may need to change what you do.

If you have any underlying health problems or health problems that start during pregnancy, always check with your doctor or midwife that the exercise you’re doing is safe. If you weren’t very active before you became pregnant, don’t start doing vigorous activity when you’re pregnant.

These are the main things to consider when you’re exercising.

Dehydration

It’s important to be well hydrated when you’re exercising and throughout your pregnancy. That means drinking plenty, exercising in places that are cool and wearing loose-fitting comfortable clothes.

Don’t do more than you feel comfortable doing – listen to your body.

Exercise that involves lying on your back

As your baby gets bigger and heavier it can start to press on the main vein in your abdomen when you lie flat on your back. This can reduce the amount of blood getting back to your heart, and that could cause low blood pressure.

After around 16 weeks, try not to lie on your back for long periods of time. If you feel light-headed, sick or unwell when you’re exercising on your back, change your position.

Possible injuries

When you’re pregnant, your body produces a hormone that causes your ligaments and tendons to soften and become more elastic. This can make an injury more likely because your joints are looser and less stable. As you baby gets bigger and you put on weight, your centre of gravity changes too, which can make you feel off balance. These changes can also cause pain, especially in your back.

You can reduce your risk of injury by warming up before exercise and cooling down afterwards.

Some activities are risky for you to do while you’re pregnant, because of the risk of injury to yourself or your baby. The main ones include:

  • scuba diving
  • cycling
  • horse riding
  • skiing
  • contact sports, such as rugby
  • gymnastics

"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.

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. Every woman is different. Some women can start gentle exercise within a few days of the birth but for others it will take longer.

It’s safe to be active after the birth. Build up gradually and try not to do too much too soon – listen to your body. If you had a caesarean delivery, you should wait until you’re fully recovered from that before you start any regular exercise. You can still go for walks and do pelvic floor exercises during this time if and when you feel ready.

Your six-week check up with your GP is a good time to review getting back to exercise or ask any questions you have.

Walking is a great way to start and, as you feel ready, gradually build up to the level of exercise you used to do. Slowly increase the time and pace of your walking every day during the first 6 weeks.

You can start pelvic floor exercises as soon as you feel able to and do them every day. You can also build up to doing strengthening exercises twice a week. If you would like to go swimming, you can do that once you have had seven days in a row without any vaginal bleeding/discharge.



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Related information

    • Physical activity guidelines: UK Chief Medical Officers' report. GOV.UK. www.gov.uk, published 7 September 2019
    • Physical activity and exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. www.acog.org, published 2015
    • Pregnancy. Oxford Handbook of General Practice (5th ed). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published June 2020
    • FIT and safe to exercise in the childbearing year. Pelvic, Obstetric and Gynaecological Physiotherapy. pogp.csp.org.uk, published 2016
    • Aquanatal guidelines – guidance on antenatal and postnatal exercise in water. Pelvic, Obstetric and Gynaecological Physiotherapy. pogp.csp.org.uk, published 2017
    • Mottola MF, Davenport MH, Ruchat SM, et al. No. 367 – 2019 Canadian guideline for physical activity throughout pregnancy. J Obstet Gynaecol Can 2018; 40(11):1528–37. doi: 10.1016/j.jogc.2018.07.001
    • Yates A. Female pelvic floor 1: anatomy and pathophysiology. Nurs Times [online] 2019; 115(5):18–21. www.nursingtimes.net
    • Woodley SJ, Lawrenson P, Boyle R, et al. Pelvic floor muscle training for preventing and treating urinary and faecal incontinence in antenatal and postnatal women. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2020; 5(5):CD007471. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007471.pub4
    • Pelvic floor exercises in women. British Association of Urological Surgeons. www.baus.org.uk, published 2020
    • Physiological changes in pregnancy. Patient – Professional Reference. patient.info/patientplus, last edited June 2016
    • Caesarean section. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), www.nice.org.uk, last updated 4 September 2019
    • Exercise and advice after pregnancy. Pelvic, Obstetric and Gynaecological Physiotherapy. pogp.csp.org.uk, published 2018
  • Reviewed by Sarah Smith, Freelance Health Editor, and Alice Windsor, Specialist Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, December 2020
    Expert reviewer Karen O’Hara, Women’s Health and MSK Physiotherapist at Bupa, and Dr Ade Adeniyi, Bupa GP
    Next review due December 2023

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