Exercise—such as brisk walking—during and after pregnancy can keep the lungs and heart healthy. It's also shown to improve mood during the postpartum period, reducing risk for postpartum depression. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that healthy women get 2.5 hours of moderately intense aerobic activity each week. Women who engage in vigorous physical activity can continue their routines during pregnancy and should consult with their doctors about when and how to adjust activity at different stages of pregnancy.
In healthy women, moderately intense physical activity during pregnancy doesn't increase the risks of early pregnancy loss, early delivery, or low birth weight. "Exercises during pregnancy are associated with higher cardiorespiratory fitness, prevention of urinary incontinence and low back pain, reduced symptoms of depression, gestational weight gain control, and for cases of gestational diabetes, reduced number of women who required insulin. There is no association with reduction in birth weight or preterm birth rate." (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23014142)
Responses to Physical Activity During Pregnancy
Pregnant women might notice changes in their reactions to physical activity.
- Rapid breathing: Pregnancy—especially later stages—increases the need for oxygen. The baby's growing size increases pressure on the lungs. The lungs then have less space when they're required to work harder. Shortness of breath happens more easily during pregnancy.
- Increased heart rate: The heart must work harder to help the oxygen flow throughout the body to the baby. Pregnant women might find that they have less energy to exercise.
- Looser joints: Pregnancy results in increased hormones, which can relax body tissues. Many pregnant women feel this as popping sensations in the hip, back, and knee joints specifically.
- Increased temperature: Pregnancy makes women more susceptible to overheating, and they sweat more easily than when not pregnant. Women who engage in physical activity during pregnancy should be mindful of their temperature and expect to start sweating more easily than usual.
- Changes in balance: As a woman's body adjusts to the changes that occur during pregnancy, her sense of balance also goes through adjustments to accommodate those changes.
Avoid Certain Physical Activities During Pregnancy
Although physical activity during pregnancy can be very good for the woman and the child, pregnant women should heed some specific precautions. Pregnant women should not engage in activities in which they're on their backs because doing so can limit the amount of blood flow to the fetus through the vena cava.
Pregnant women should avoid activities that have a risk of abdominal injury or falling, such as skiing, gymnastics, kickboxing, horseback riding, basketball, and soccer. Scuba diving should also be avoided because it can cause the baby's blood vessels to develop dangerous gas bubbles. Similarly, high-altitude exercise can lower the oxygen that the baby receives.
Immediately cease physical activity during pregnancy and consult a doctor if any of the following happen during exercise:
- Chest pain
- Rapid or uneven heartbeat
- Vaginal bleeding
- Contractions that persist after rest
- Amniotic fluid leakage
- Lower leg pain or swelling
- Muscle weakness
- Decreased or ceased fetal movement
Alleviate Some Pregnancy Discomfort
Exercise can help reduce some discomfort associated with pregnancy, including backaches, constipation, insomnia, and swollen veins. Women who exercise while pregnant have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight during pregnancy, and lose weight more easily after their babies are born.
Pelvic floor exercises can help strengthen the pelvic muscles, which become strained during pregnancy.
Reduce Preeclampsia and Gestational Diabetes Risks
According to a study published in the American Heart Association Journal, "Women who engaged in any regular physical activity during early pregnancy, compared with inactive women, experienced a 35% reduced risk of preeclampsia."
Gestational diabetes can be very dangerous, and women can reduce the risk with regular physical activity during pregnancy. Those who develop gestational diabetes can use regular exercise to control diabetes symptoms. Diet also plays an enormous role in whether women experience gestational diabetes. Pregnant women should maintain a diet low in sugar and high in vegetables and healthy fats. Moderate amounts of nuts can provide healthy fats that help the baby's brain develop. Read more about how cashews can be part of a healthy pregnancy. Pregnant women should also ensure that they have sufficient iron levels to maintain proper oxygen flow. Read more diet information at the Healthy Alberta blog.
Lastly, women who do regular physical activity during pregnancy impart a resilience to their babies at birth, and often have shorten labors. Physically active women who give birth also have fewer complications during delivery. After the baby is born, women who exercised during pregnancy are less susceptible to postnatal depression and have reduced anxiety levels.
Ideal Physical Activity During Pregnancy
- Aerobics (low impact/water aerobics)
- Stationary bicycling
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