Though the misconception that physical activity should be curbed during pregnancy remains, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Exercise is beneficial to the pregnancy and to the mother’s health in general,” says Anjélica J. Carbajal, MD, obstetrician/gynecologist at Beth Israel Deaconess HealthCare – Chelsea. “Not only should active women remain active during uncomplicated pregnancies, but those who weren’t active before becoming pregnant should gradually incorporate regular moderate activity into their daily routines.”
Being physically active promotes healthier pregnancies, deliveries and postpartum recoveries. It reduces the risk of developing gestational diabetes (characterized by high blood glucose), preeclampsia (characterized by high blood pressure and kidney dysfunction) and other conditions that can cause serious complications for mother and baby alike. In addition, active women are at lower risk for postpartum depression, and some studies show that exercise may reduce the likelihood of needing a Cesarean section.
“If you’re not a marathon runner now, it’s not the time to start training for one, but you do need to develop an activity plan that will help maintain your fitness level during pregnancy,” says Dr. Carbajal. “Once you go into labor, it is kind of like a marathon. Labor is going to be harder and your recovery is going to be more difficult if you are deconditioned.”
Active women who already enjoy activities such as brisk walking, light jogging, using cardio equipment, Zumba, Pilates and weight training can continue to engage in the exercise program of their choice. Resistance training and aerobic activities are both encouraged within reason.
“One of the most important things is for women to listen to their bodies,” says Dr. Carbajal. “Adjustments may need to be made as the pregnancy progresses. If it becomes uncomfortable or you’re not feeling well, it’s time to scale it back.”
Those who are new to exercise can begin slowly and work their way up to the recommended 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. “I tell my patients to start doing something a couple of times a week for 10 or 15 minutes a day – whatever they are comfortable with. It doesn’t have to be anything vigorous,” says Dr. Carbajal. Exercising in water is beneficial on several levels. The resistance of the water provides both aerobic and resistance training benefits while taking pressure off the joints.
Dr. Carbajal cautions against participating in contact sports and other activities that pose the risk of abdominal injury, as well as scuba diving because of the hyperbaric pressure exerted. Also important is staying well hydrated before, during and after exercising, as well as protecting yourself from heat stroke by choosing not to exercise or exercising in a well air conditioned place during hot, humid weather.
An ongoing relationship with your obstetrician/gynecologist and staying in tune with how you feel are key elements of a safe pre- and post-partum fitness program. Pregnant women should have their initial visits with their obstetricians before proceeding with exercise to make sure risk factors such as a short cervix, a history of preeclampsia or other complications that could be exacerbated by physical activity aren’t present.
“If the pregnancy is uncomplicated, there’s no reason why a woman should not be very active,” Dr. Carbajal says. “Pregnancy is not a reason to not exercise. In fact it is a reason to exercise. It’s a great time to develop healthy habits that will benefit you for the rest of your life.”
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