Published on May 18, 2023

Exercising Safely During Pregnancy

Heather Durall

By Heather Durall for Mind & Body

About three years ago, I was 1,450 meters above sea level, trekking up Bach Ma Mountain National Park in Vietnam. About halfway through the hike, I revealed my secret to some friends; I was about three months pregnant. They were shocked and offered to shepherd me off the mountain. What trumped their excitement for me was their fear that I was hiking and not lying in bed and, therefore, I was putting my pregnancy at risk.

Three months later, I was still in Vietnam, carrying around a massive baby bump. One day I was deadlifting about 135 pounds at a local gym in Vietnam when one of the staff members approached me, concerned that I was lifting weights while so obviously pregnant. Most of the gym members gawked as I went about my usual exercise routine, and it took me weeks of showing up regularly to convince them that I wasn't going faint or give birth during heavy-loaded squats.

At the Healthpark, where I work as a personal trainer, I occasionally see a few pregnant women, and I silently cheer them on as they continue to challenge their bodies during pregnancy. However, the general public’s views towards exercising during pregnancy in America are not much farther off than what they are in Vietnam: hesitant. We all know women need rest and recovery for all the hard work their bodies are performing during pregnancy. Few know that we need exercise to ensure healthy outcomes for ourselves and the generation not yet born. I want to share just a few of the surprising benefits of moving that baby bump and the guidelines for exercising safely during pregnancy are.

First, let’s talk about the benefits of exercise for the baby. We know mothers usually put their children first, so this is an excellent place to start. Studies show that exercising during pregnancy can cause the fetus to develop the framework for more resistant arteries that can benefit a baby even into childhood. Studies in mice prove that healthy maternal behaviors improve the offspring’s neurocognitive development and glucose handling compared to sedentary mothers. In summary, we know that exercising mothers can significantly impact their baby's health, even before they are born.

Secondly, let’s discuss why moms may want to consider more movement during pregnancy, despite having all the symptoms that make people usually not want to exercise. Exercise during pregnancy is known to help mothers cope with mood swings and the lows of prenatal depression. Exercising can also decrease the risks of complications during pregnancy, like pelvic pain and pre-gestational diabetes, both of which are associated with higher risks of depression during pregnancy. Staying active can help decrease the pain from carrying another human around. It can also help the mother maintain her weight, reducing the risk of an overweight infant. Some of pregnancy's most annoying symptoms, like low-quality sleep, back pain, bloating and swelling, can be combated with exercise.

Finally, let's discuss how much exercise is recommended and how to achieve it safely from any starting fitness level. The recommendation for pregnant mothers is to get 150 minutes of cardiovascular training, which can be broken down into 30 minutes daily, most days of the week. Benefits are still reaped even if this 30 minutes per day suggestion is broken into three 10-minute increments throughout the day. For some women, this may sound daunting. However, it is safe and advisable to start by simply increasing your daily exercise in 5 or 10-minute increments each week until the recommendation is reached. It is never too late to start.

For resistance training, the recommendation is twice a week at a moderate intensity. You can build muscle tone during pregnancy to help you endure the marathon or sprint of labor, whichever mother nature decides to give you. Studies show that women who exercise during pregnancy have shorter labors and decreased c-section rates.

Since both of these recommendations included the word "moderate," let's discuss what that means. It means that you are not sweating profusely and constantly out of breath. Before my hike in Bach Ma in 90-degree temperatures, no one told me I should not exercise in excessive heat outdoors, which could raise my internal body temperature past what is comfortable for little bean. One way of measuring intensity is called the "talk test." You know you have exercised too hard during pregnancy if you can no longer reach "G" while singing the ABCs without taking a breath. Try it now while you are not exercising and see how far down the alphabet you can get without taking a breath.

In summary, you should always talk to your doctor before exercising during pregnancy. For the general population, however, not exercising during pregnancy is more risky. So let's get moving, mamas!

Heather Durall is a Fitness Coach & Personal Trainer at the Owensboro Health Healthpark.

About Owensboro Health

Owensboro Health is a nonprofit health system with a mission to heal the sick and to improve the health of the communities it serves in Kentucky and Indiana. The system includes Owensboro Health Regional Hospital, nationally recognized for design, architecture and engineering; Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital; Owensboro Health Twin Lakes Medical Center; the Owensboro Health Medical Group comprised of over 350 providers at more than 30 locations; three outpatient Healthplex facilities, a certified medical fitness facility, the Healthpark; a surgical weight loss center and program, and the Mitchell Memorial Cancer Center.

On average each year, we have more than 19,000 inpatient admissions, deliver 2,000 babies and provide the region’s only Level III NICU. Owensboro Health physicians perform nearly 33,000 surgical procedures, including nearly 150 open-heart surgeries. Our physicians and staff have 90,000 Emergency Department visits and more than 1.25 million outpatient visits annually. Visit our home page for more information.