Physical Activity and Exercise During Pregnancy

By BSc, MSc (embryologist) and BA, MA (fertility counselor).
Last Update: 01/12/2016

Physical activity gives the pregnant woman a better general physical condition and will allow her to carry pregnancy and labor with fewer risks.

Among the many benefits of doing physical exercise during pregnancy, we highlight the following:

  • Reduced digestive discomfort and constipation
  • Increased psychological well-being
  • Reduced levels of anxiety, depression, and insomnia
  • Creation of healthy lifestyle habits
  • Improvement of arterial pressure
  • Protection against gestational diabetes

Besides, it has been shown that doing physical activity during pregnancy allows to reduce the length of postnatal hospital stay and the number of cesareans.

However, it is important to keep in mind that physical activity during pregnancy should be of moderate intensity, without increasing the magnitude of the effort required before pregnancy and always following your doctor's instructions.

Below you have an index with the 5 points we are going to deal with in this article.

Exercise intensity during pregnancy

During pregnancy, the most advisable is to follow moderate-intensity aerobic exercise programs, always taking into account that they should not surpass 70% of the woman's peak oxygen uptake. Using a heart rate monitor is the best option to monitor one's maximum heart rate.

You should avoid high intensity physical activity or competitive sport as well as increasing the amount of exercise sharply. In case doing severe-to-heavy exercise is required, it should not be done in hot, wet climates due to the risk of dehydration and the increase of temperature. Besides, it should not take longer than 15 minutes.

Large amplitude movements must be limited, given the risk of developing the joint hypermobility syndrome (JHS) during gestation, which could lead to a higher risk of musculoskeletal and joint injuries.

You should also avoid balance exercises where there exist some risk of falling or abdominal trauma, especially from the third trimester onwards. Remaining in a static position for long periods of time and sudden changes in posture may cause the woman to feel nausea and even fall flat.

Which sports are the safest during pregnancy?

Most recommended sports are swimming, cycling or light-to-moderate intensity walking for 20-40 minutes and with a frequency of 3 times a week. Muscle training can be performed once or twice a week at an intensity of 50%, with 15-20 repetitions per exercise and paying special attention to pelvic, abdominal, lumbar, and pectoral regions. Flexibility must be daily worked, if possible.

If you play aerobic and artistic gymnastics, water skiing, skating, alpine skiing, and racket sports (tennis and badminton), you should practice them in short sessions and avoid sport gestures such as a serve in tennis because of the range of movement it requires.

Activities that must be avoided are contact sports, those which are done on hard surfaces, therefore increasing abdominal pressure such as jump, basketball, volleyball, etc., or those which require an excessive abdominal work.

Medical advice

The prescription of physical exercise should be customized and subjected to regular medical check-ups. The safest option is to search for advice of a qualified personal trainer in a sports center, at least at the beginning of the training program.

In sedentary women or women who occasionally do physical exercise, gestation is not the most suitable moment to take up a new sport. In such cases, women are usually suggested to join a specific birth preparation program guided by a personal trainer.

The best would be to fit birth preparation exercises according to each specific trimester of pregnancy:

  • During the first trimester of pregnancy, women who do regular physical exercise are usually in good condition to continue practicing it, although they should spread their training sessions out and avoid trauma.
  • During the second and the third trimester, activities developing qualities such as flexibility, relaxation, muscular strength (aimed at strengthening pelvic musculature and correcting postural changes caused by the displacement of the center of gravity backwards), and breathing exercises are strongly recommended.

It is advisable to restrict swimming throughout the last 6 weeks of pregnancy due to the risk of infections.

Preparing for labor and delivery

Childbirth classes include moderate-intensity exercises which main goal is to relax and strengthen the pelvic muscles, legs, and back.

Main physical activities practiced in childbirth classes are flexibility exercises by means of stretching, always trying to prevent muscle soreness, without pushing the body too much. Toning exercises are also very common among this type of classes and aim at strengthening the muscles, so that they are able to bear maternal physiological changes in pregnancy as well as maternal effort during labor and delivery.

Pelvic mobility exercises are also important, since they promote the baby's exit from the uterus. Pelvic-floor-muscle exercises help reduce the likelihood of having perineal tears during vaginal delivery.

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 Neus Ferrando Gilabert
Neus Ferrando Gilabert
BSc, MSc
Bachelor's Degree in Biology from the University of Valencia (UV). Postgraduate Course in Biotechnology of Human Assisted Reproduction from the Miguel Hernández University of Elche (UMH). Experience managing Embryology and Andrology Labs at Centro Médico Manzanera (Logroño, Spain). More information about Neus Ferrando Gilabert
Adapted into english by:
 Sandra Fernández
Sandra Fernández
Fertility Counselor
Bachelor of Arts in Translation and Interpreting (English, Spanish, Catalan, German) from the University of Valencia (UV) and Heriot-Watt University, Riccarton Campus (Edinburgh, UK). Postgraduate Course in Legal Translation from the University of Valencia. Specialist in Medical Translation, with several years of experience in the field of Assisted Reproduction. More information about Sandra Fernández

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