Exercise for the Expecting: Guidelines to Remember

By now, I’m sure you’ve all figured out that I am a big proponent of exercising during pregnancy… in fact, I’m a big proponent of exercising, period. Still, there are a multitude of benefits that come from keeping up with a regular fitness routine during pregnancy in particular. These include, but aren’t limited to, maintaining a healthy pattern of weight gain, better sleep patterns, stress and anxiety relief, better circulation,  less risk of C-section, fewer joint pains, regulating blood pressure, easier weight loss post-pregnancy, and shorter, easier labor and delivery. Nevertheless, there are also special considerations to keep in mind for exercise while you are expecting. Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind in order to work out with care and confidence.

1)  Clear everything by your doc first.

Just as no two women are the same, no two pregnancies are the same either. Certain conditions and complications may make exercising difficult, or worse, contraindicated. Make sure you have clearance to continue your exercise routine before you  proceed.

2) This is not the time to train harder, faster or longer.

If you have been working out regularly, you can most likely continue your fitness routine (refer to point 1). That said, you should not be trying to increase your fitness levels or intensity. In fact, a good rule of thumb is to bring your intensity down by about 15% in every workout. Think less weight, more reps, for example. Use the talk test during activity; if you can’t hold a conversation, bring your intensity level down.

Here’s a thought: cardio intervals are a great option to replace endurance training. Try 15-20 minutes of more vigorous cardio, and then 5-10 minutes of a lighter intensity, bringing the heartrate back down, and repeat. Not only does this pattern help you keep your cardiac output in check, but it also simulates the natural interval rhythms you will experience during labor. After all, you are in training for a very important event.

3) Keep your body temperature reasonable.

It’s ok to sweat. It’s ok to get a little warm. But is this the time to be drenched in the middle of a packed Hot Yoga class?? I would say no. If you are fully red in the face, you may be too warm. Remember, your body’s way of cooling down is to sweat. But that little baby inside does not have the ability to self-regulate body temperature or sweat just yet. If you get too warm, think about how warm Little One is inside that cocoon! Just as you would avoid a hot tub, it’s probably best to avoid working out in hot rooms during pregnancy.

Additionally, STAY HYDRATED. Remember that if you are working out, you need to drink even more water than usual. Dehydration can lead to some pretty scary things if left unchecked. I’m not going to freak you out. Just suffice it to say that Little One is swimming in amniotic fluid, which is, in large part, water. So drink up!

4) Avoid plyometrics, excessive range of motion, val salva maneuvers and impact sports.

Avoid whah…?!? Let me translate. Your body is now inundated with a hormone called Relaxin, which is preparing you for birth by stretching the muscles and ligaments around your joints. This creates a certain amount of instability, and often it’s harder to recognize your limits. So avoid plyometrics: quick, rapid, impactful movements that change direction quickly. For instance: repetetive jumping, sprinting, etc.

Avoid excessive range of motion: stretches or exercises that push your flexibility to it’s limits, and especially when weight is involved. Work within a range of motion that is manageable for your shoulders, knees, hips and back. Avoid forcing a stretch, or stretching for too long. 10-15 seconds in a stretch should be plenty at one time. If you still feel tight, alternate sides and stretch twice.

Avoid val salva maneuvers: this means no holding your breath while exerting force. When lifting weight, make sure it’s not so heavy that you are forced to stop breathing. When you are performing an isometric exercise like a plank, breath through it, and focus on that breath. Synchronize your movements to your breath, making sure your muscle contractions remain dynamic (growing tighter gradually, then gradually releasing), rather than contracting your muscles in a static, rigid fashion. Getting into the habit of breathing and moving in this way will also help in the delivery room.

And no impact sports – this is also for your safety and the safety of the baby. Basketball, volleyball, skiing, snowboarding, water skiing…. really anything that has an inherent danger of 1) colliding with someone else, 2) colliding with the floor, or 2)  falling and falling FAST should be avoided.

5) Be aware of your posture.

Your posture will change substantially in pregnancy, in part because of the growing belly, in part because of the growing breasts, and in part because of the relaxin. You will most likely develop more of an anterior tilt to the pelvis: this means your hip bones will move forward and downward, giving the appearance of “sticking your butt out”. This will also increase the extension curve of your lower back. As a result your lower back muscles and your hip flexors will tighten while the abdominals become weaker, and stretch out to acommodate baby. Simultaneously, the hamstrings may feel as though they are getting tighter, even though they are lengthening. The muscles in the back side of your body, aka the posterior chain, are forced to work much harder in order to counteract all the growth and weight in the front of your body. Before moving, bring some awareness to your posture and dynamically engage the muscles of the core and posterior chain. Furthermore your shoulders may also begin to round forward more with the added weight of the breasts, and in response to the ever-growing arch in the lower back. Keep reminding yourself to roll the upper arms outward, slide the shoulder blades in toward the spine, and slide the shoulders down your back.

6) Avoid prolonged periods lying on your back after 20 weeeks.

As the baby grows, lying flat on your back for a longer period of time can interfere with your circulation, specifically bringing blood back to the heart. The baby will lie right on your vena cava, preventing proper circulation, and therefore oxygenation. That means it’s time to get creative with your sleeping and fitness patterns!

7) As your belly grows, start reducing supine flexion and twists.

Supine flexion = lying on your back doing a sit up. Twists = well, twisting the spine. As you start to get bigger, diastasis recti, or the splitting of the 6-pack stomach muscles, is a possibility. Try to avoid over-doing traditional cruch style exercises. Instead, focus on some of the more subtle core exercises which target the deep abdominals, and those working from a seated position as opposed to lying flat (check my Work it Out page for ideas!). If you have two feet in the air and you feel a lot of tugging or strain, back off to just one leg, or none. When you twist, be sure you are doing so from a comfortable seated position rather than starting in a position that already causes you discomfort or forces you into a slumped position. Eventually, back off these types of exercises all together. You can still tone and tighten your over-stretched abdominals, but focus exercises that target your transverse abdominis and obliques.

8) Feel off balance? You probably are!

Balancing exercises from a standing position will continually be more challenging throughout your pregnancy. Even exercises on two feet are sometimes more difficult! Your center of gravity is shifting daily, making standing upright a new challenge every time you workout. If needed, broaden your base of support by widening your stance. Check your posture and engage your glutes. Hold your arms out to the side to help you balance, or keep your hand on a chair or wall for support. Holding your arms overhead will be more difficult, so perhaps it’s best to avoid moving from that position for now.

9) Heed the warning signs.

If you feel at ALL lightheaded, nauseous or dizzy, stop what you are doing. Furthermore, stop exercising until you speak with your doctor if you experience any of the following: vaginal bleeding, leakage of amniotic fluid, extreme calf cramping or pain, or decreased fetal movement. Please pay attention to your body… and that brings me to my last point:

10) Doubt means Don’t.

I say this a lot. And yes, it’s my favorite phrase. You know your body, you know what feels good and what feels strange – make sure you pay attention. If you have any hesitations or reservations about what you should or should not do, it’s best to hold off until you speak with you doctor. Your number one priority right now is your health and the health of the baby. If you don’t break a sweat one day, don’t fret – it’s not the end of the world. Your job is to maintain your level of fitness during this 9 months, and over-doing it can be as bad or worse than not doing anything at all.  You will have plenty of chances after baby is born to push your limits; for now, enjoy this time. Revere your body, and the miracle it is producing. The wisdom of our bodies is immeasureable, and we are simply tasked with letting it flourish.

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