Traditionally, women were warned against exercising whilst pregnant as it was a danger to their unborn child, however, after much research in this area, the benefits far outweigh the myths associated with training whilst pregnant. There are so many changes that happen to the female body while pregnant, not only physical changes but emotional and hormonal changes as well.
If you are healthy and your pregnancy is normal, it is safe to continue or start regular physical activity. What are the benefits of exercise during pregnancy? Regular exercise during pregnancy benefits you and your fetus in these key ways:
- Reduces back pain
- Eases constipation
- May decrease your risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and cesarean delivery
- Promotes healthy weight gain during pregnancy
- Improves your overall general fitness and strengthens your heart and blood vessels
- Helps you to lose the baby weight after your baby is born
Even a simple walk around the block or a session of stretching can lead to an improved mood, better sleep, an easier labor and a quicker recovery. So if you need some motivation to lace up those dusty sneakers, here it is.
Improvement of the Cardiovascular System
The cardiovascular changes that occur in pregnancy are very similar to those induced by exercise. Both increase blood volume, maximal cardiac output, blood vessel growth, the ability to dissipate heat, and the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues. For this reason, researchers believe that fit women have an easier time adapting to the physiologic changes of pregnancy than unfit pregnant women. This is why it is very important to exercise and attain healthy fitness levels prior to pregnancy.
One difference between the cardiovascular effects of exercise and pregnancy, however, is where the blood goes. With exercise, the blood flow is routed to the heart, skin, muscles and adrenal glands. In pregnancy, more blood is directed to the reproductive organs, kidneys and skin.
Although the combined effects of exercise and pregnancy are additive, from a safety standpoint, there is concern that exercising too vigorously during pregnancy will shunt blood away from the internal organs and the fetus to the working muscles and skin resulting in less blood flow to the baby. While fit pregnant women may have less blood shunting than unfit women, research shows that mild to moderate exercise is ideal for pregnant women.
Improvement of Gas Transfer and Oxygen Availability
Regular sustained exercise increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin so that with each breath, more oxygen is delivered to the tissues as well as the growing fetus. This puts less strain on the heart muscle and contributes to increased stamina. Exercise also increases the number of mitochondria in the muscular cells, which helps to increase energy production, strength, and muscular endurance.
Pregnancy, in itself, is an aerobic workout. Just by virtue of being pregnant, a woman’s body is overloading every day! The combination of exercise and pregnancy improves maximal aerobic capacity even more. Athletic trainers have noticed this for many years. They have seen women athletes dramatically improve their performance in national and international track and field events after having a baby. In the 1950’s, several European trainers encouraged their female athletes to get pregnant in order to compete more successfully.
It is important that women listen to their bodies when exercising. If a woman finds it difficult to talk while exercising, then the intensity level is too high. Using the Perceived Exertion Scale for measuring exercise intensity is extremely important and a much better indicator of exercise intensity than taking the heart rate in pregnancy.
Enhanced Ability to Handle Heat Stress
Regular exercise over a sustained period of time tends to increase blood volume to the skin which helps to dissipate heat. Exercise also decreases the core temperature threshold for perspiring. With exercise, the body becomes extremely efficient at keeping the body cool.
In pregnancy, the body’s set point for normal body temperature decreases as the internal body temperature increases 0.5 degrees centigrade. This, in combination with the increased blood flow to the skin, helps pregnant women keep their bodies cool.
Improvement of Musculoskeletal Function
The stronger and more fit a woman is prior to pregnancy, the fewer problems she has in adjusting to the musculoskeletal demands of pregnancy. Pregnant women with strong abdominal and back muscles tend to have a lower incidence of low-back discomfort throughout pregnancy. During pregnancy, a hormone, relaxin, cause increased joint laxity creating more in- stability. Having strong joints reduces the risk of injury.
More stress is also placed on the upper back from the normal increased curve of the spine as well as the increased size and weight of the breasts. Exercises that concentrate on strengthening the upper back and stretching the chest muscles help to counteract any discomfort that may occur.
Decrease in Maternal Discomforts and Disease Prevention
Studies indicate that women who exercise regularly during pregnancy have less than 10% occurrence of low-back, leg or pelvic discomfort compared to non-exercisers who reported more than a 40% incidence. The three factors that seem to influence a decrease in maternal discomforts include exercise that is regular, weight-bearing and sustained for a period of time. There is also evidence that regular physical activity during the year prior to pregnancy and during early pregnancy reduces risk of preeclampsia, which can be a life-threatening situation for both mother and baby.
Easier Labor and Delivery
Research suggests that women who continued regular weight-bearing exercise throughout pregnancy show a marked decrease in the need for pain relief during labor, the incidence of maternal exhaustion, and the need for artificially rupturing the membranes to stimulate the progression of labor.
Regular exercise in the general population is associated with a lower incidence of upper respiratory infections. Researchers have observed that exercising pregnant women experience a lower incidence of colds, flu syndromes, sinusitis and bronchitis. On the other end, people who exercise too strenuously, have an increased incidence of upper respiratory infections. Moderation is the key to health!
Keep in mind: The goals of exercise should never interfere with the goals of a healthy pregnancy. Women with certain other medical or obstetric conditions, including chronic hypertension or active thyroid, cardiac, vascular or pulmonary disease should be evaluated carefully in order to determine whether an exercise program is appropriate.