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Here’s everything you should know about exercise during pregnancy

Learn how to safely work out while pregnant and how it can benefit you and your baby

If you’re an expectant parent, especially a first-timer, you likely have many questions about what you should and shouldn’t do. For instance, can you work out during pregnancy? For parents-to-be who enjoy physical activity, you want to know how to safely exercise while providing the best prenatal environment for your baby. 

In the past, pregnant women were urged to decrease the intensity and length of exercise, but that’s evolving. The current advice is that working out during pregnancy is a low-risk, generally safe activity. Exercise doesn’t increase your risk of miscarriage, birthing a low-weight baby, or giving birth prematurely. Most experts say the benefits are so substantial that people who didn’t work out regularly before becoming pregnant should consider doing so during pregnancy. 

As you decide with your healthcare provider what’s right for you, here’s everything you need to know about exercising while pregnant, including benefits, safety measures, and pregnancy-safe exercises.

Is it safe to exercise during pregnancy?

For those with healthy pregnancies, it is safe—and encouraged—to exercise while pregnant, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Exercise during pregnancy helps you maintain optimal physical fitness, slows weight gain, and decreases your risk of developing gestational diabetes and pregnancy hypertension.

However, ACOG encourages you to check with your OB-GYN before exercising during pregnancy. Your provider can help you develop an exercise program that fits your needs, including any modifications that may be necessary based on your medical history and how far along you are in the pregnancy.

According to the National Library of Medicine, you shouldn’t work out during pregnancy if you have the following conditions:

  • Placenta previa
  • Bleeding during the second or third trimester
  • Premature rupture of membranes (water breaking)
  • History of premature labor or premature birth in a previous pregnancy
  • Serious heart or lung disease in mother
  • Preeclampsia
  • Significant anemia
  • Cervical incompetence

There’s no exact point during the pregnancy when you should stop working out—many women exercise up to delivery. As for how long or vigorously you exercise, listen to your body and don’t overdo it. Many pregnant women find that as they get further along in their pregnancies, they need to dial back the intensity and duration of their activities, says Abby Eblen, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist at Nashville Fertility Center.

“Carrying on a conversation during exercise is a good way to make sure that the intensity is not too great,” Dr. Eblen says. “If a woman is not able to talk during exercise, then the intensity should be decreased,” she says. 

Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise weekly, divided throughout the week. Start easy if you’re new to exercising. Do five to 10 minutes at a time, and build up to 30-minute blocks as it feels more manageable.

Benefits of exercise during pregnancy

Pregnancy exercise is beneficial to you and your baby. Exercise improves your mood and can boost your mental health. It also helps keep pregnancy weight gain within the normal range (25-35 pounds). According to ACOG, additional health benefits of exercise in pregnancy include:

  • Increased likelihood of vaginal delivery
  • Decreased likelihood of surgical (C-section) birth
  • Decreased chance of excessive weight gain
  • Decreased risk of high blood pressure
  • Decreased risk of gestational diabetes
  • Decreased likelihood of a preterm labor 
  • Increased chance of healthy birth weight for infants

However, exercising while pregnant isn’t healthy just for moms. According to Shandra Scruggs, RN, a labor and delivery nurse and founder of Simply Birthed, exercise benefits your growing baby. Exercise promotes healthy weight gain for you, directly decreasing your baby’s risk of premature birth, stillbirth, or complications such as neural tube defect. It may also lead to healthier birth weights in newborns, Scruggs notes.

There are also indications that labor and delivery will be easier when you exercise while pregnant. “Regular exercise can improve endurance and strength, potentially aiding in labor and delivery, making it more manageable for some individuals,” Scruggs says. “Specific exercises like squats can strengthen pelvic floor muscles, potentially aiding in the pushing stage of labor.”

Best exercises during pregnancy

It’s safe to exercise throughout your pregnancy—including in the first, second, and third trimester. Still, some women wonder if they need to pull back on exercise during the first trimester, which is a critical time of growth of the placenta and blood vessels that nourish the fetus and development for babies. “In the first trimester, low-impact exercises are generally considered safe,” Scruggs says. “However, it’s crucial to listen to your body and avoid overexertion.”

Dr. Eblen says it’s important to stay hydrated during exercise, particularly during summer. Pay close attention to it later in pregnancy as dehydration can lead to premature contractions and premature labor. 

Here are five pregnancy-safe exercises to consider adding to your workout routine, whatever trimester you are in. 

1. Aerobic exercise

Incorporate low-impact aerobic exercises, like walking, swimming, ellipticals, stair steppers, and dancing, into your routine. According to the National Library of Medicine, a target heart rate for aerobic exercise during pregnancy is 110 to 120 beats a minute. Prevent overexerting yourself by checking in with yourself—if you can talk normally, you’re on the right track. Stay hydrated during aerobic exercise, and ensure the surrounding temperature is comfortable, as women who are pregnant overheat easily.

2. Weight lifting

While the National Library of Medicine doesn’t recommend heavy lifting during pregnancy, careful strength training can be safe, according to Bethany Blake, DPT, a pelvic floor therapist and the co-owner of Arkansas Pelvic Health. “The most important things are your form and the ability to breathe while lifting,” Blake says. “Exercise should not be painful; if you are having low back pain, ‘lightning crotch,’ or abdominal pain, reach out to a pelvic floor therapist.” It’s important not to spend too much time lying flat on your back while pregnant as the fetus may constrict blood vessels bringing blood back to the mother’s heart, so a seated or standing position is best.

3. Squats

Squatting is one of the top exercises Blake recommends to her patients. ACOG recommends using a large exercise ball for support and following these steps:

  • Place the ball firmly against the wall and press your body into it
  • Ensure your lower back makes close and firm contact with the ball, and distribute your weight evenly between your feet
  • Using slow, careful movement, squat downward, keeping your body pressed against the exercise ball
  • Ensure your knees don’t move inward, and keep your feet flat and grounded to the floor
  • Keep your chest wide and open
  • Squat halfway down at first, and squat deeper as your body gets used to it
  • Repeat four to six times

4. Abdominal exercises

Keeping your abdominal muscles strong during pregnancy can help you manage the growing weight of your belly and protect your lower back and pelvic floor. Yoga and Pilates are safe pregnancy activities if you avoid lying down on your back for long periods. (You may want to skip the sit-ups.) Prenatal yoga may be a better choice than hot yoga as the exercises will be specifically modified for pregnant women. 

Another ACOG-recommended exercise is to get on all fours with hips over knees and hands over shoulders. With a flat back, inhale deeply. When you exhale, you should feel your abdominal muscles tighten and engage. Repeat four to six times. 

5. Cycling

Cycling on a stationary bike can be beneficial during pregnancy; avoid biking outside because of the risk of falling. As the size of the pregnancy grows, the center of gravity changes, and this can cause balance issues. “Stationary cycling provides a cardiovascular workout without the risk of balance issues,” Scruggs says. For some pregnant people, cycling can be more comfortable than walking because it puts less strain on your pelvic muscles. As with all aerobic exercises, stay hydrated, don’t overexert yourself, and ensure the room where you are biking is a comfortable temperature.

Exercises to avoid during pregnancy

Especially as your pregnancy progresses, you may need to modify exercises to accommodate the physical changes of pregnancy. 

“Listen to your body, and stop exercising if you experience any discomfort or medical concerns,” Scruggs says. “Every pregnancy is unique, so it’s essential to tailor your exercise routine to your specific needs and preferences.”

You want to avoid exercises that may throw you off balance, says Dr. Eblen, especially as your pregnant belly grows. “Exercises that require sudden movements, such as tennis, should be avoided since the center of gravity changes during pregnancy, potentially resulting in a fall,” she explains. Scruggs adds that while some bending is okay, you should avoid deep twists or over-stretching. Other types of exercise to avoid include downhill skiing, scuba diving, and horseback riding. 

Additionally, you should follow these safety precautions:

  • Avoid dehydration or getting overheated.
  • Wear a supportive bra.
  • Use a belly support belt when walking or jogging.
  • Don’t lie directly on your back for long periods.
  • Don’t stand motionless for long durations.

If you experience any of the following, it may be time to start working out and see your OB-GYN:

  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Chest pressure or pain
  • Headaches
  • Feeling weak
  • Experiencing calf swelling or pain
  • Uterine contractions that feel different, consistent, or painful
  • Any sudden fluid discharge or leakage from your vagina

When can you start exercising again after giving birth?

Once your baby arrives, talk to your OB-GYN about when it’s safe to resume exercise. Typically, you’ll be told to refrain from exercising until your six-week postpartum check-up. 

“The optimal time to begin postpartum exercise varies depending on individual factors and the delivery type,” Scruggs says. “Although six weeks is a common guideline, it’s essential to prioritize individual recovery.”

Blake says that very gentle postpartum exercise can begin before your six-week check-up. “This can look like mini squats, bridges, and basic isometric exercises,” she says. Don’t engage in anything too strenuous, like heavy lifting or running, before you are near 12 weeks postpartum, she says. Your tissues, ligaments, and muscles need time to repair themselves after pregnancy and childbirth. Even if you worked out prior to pregnancy and during pregnancy, starting back to heavy exercise too soon can cause pelvic floor dysfunction,” Blake says.

Exercising after your baby is born and once you have medical clearance is valuable. The benefits of postpartum exercise include improvements in mental health, mood, and weight loss. As with any activity—especially when your body is going through monumental changes like pregnancy and postpartum—stay in close contact with your medical team. Always listen to your body, and stop exercising if anything seems wrong.