Nausea. Back pain. Mood swings. Headaches. Soul-crushing fatigue. Remind me again why you can’t get motivated to exercise during pregnancy?
The truth is, despite its less pleasant symptoms, pregnancy is a huge motivator for women to embark on a healthier lifestyle. In our Belly Bootcamp classes we see plenty of women who have barely exercised since university (OK, highschool…) but who find new inspiration in being someone’s mom, wanting to be a good role model, wanting the best outcome for the pregnancy, and generally just not wanting to drop dead at 50.
So you’re pregnant. You throw up your breakfast, grab a cup of tea, and get up the energy to hit the gym or check your local paper for an exercise class. Wait. What are you allowed to do? There’s your grandma telling you to put your feet up, your mom telling you about her circa-1980 prenatal jazzercise and that pregnant marathoner from your office you’re sure could bench-press you if there was ever money on the table. Who do you believe? What is really dangerous during pregnancy and what is just old folklore designed to keep you barefoot and pregnant, nineteenth century styles?
Here are the top 5 pregnancy exercise myths still circulating around out there and the truth about what’s safe.
1. Exercise causes miscarriage.
No, it doesn’t. Miscarriage is sometimes a mystery, which is why we can’t always predict/prevent it. Plenty of studies have failed to link moderate and even high intensity exercise with increased miscarriage risk. The old fear of pregnant weightlifting has gone out the window, too. A University of Georgia study (link: http://news.uga.edu/releases/article/weight-training-safe-for-pregnant-women/ ) recently found absolutely no injury or negative outcome among pregnant weightlifters; in fact, the participants experienced significant strength gains over the course of the study. The one type of exercise you should avoid, particularly in the first trimester, is any in a heated environment since an increased core temperature in the mother may carry risk to the baby; in other words, hot yoga, saunas and jogging on extreme heat alert days is out of the question. Since miscarriage is still a bit of an enigma, use your common sense and gradually build up your endurance in early pregnancy, adding 5-10 minutes to your workouts, week by week, and avoiding exercise that causes breathlessness, dizziness or pain (these are good guidelines for the not-pregnant as well).
The reality: the benefits of regular exercise in pregnancy outweigh any suggested risks BY FAR. Experts recommend regular exercise during pregnancy, as many as 6-7 days per week, and modern science has proven no causal link between exercise and miscarriage. The truth is, most miscarriages are not within your control.
2. Jumping and running while pregnant can hurt the baby.
No, it can’t. The human body was designed to move and, though we might only carry a baby once or twice in a lifetime, our ancestors didn’t have IUDs and were almost always pregnant. Trust nature to equip the female body with a shock-absorbing system to keep the baby safe in utero while mom ran from a sabre tooth tiger or enjoyed a morning 5K before work. Amniotic fluid envelopes baby like a puffy little cloud and absorbs regular impact, and even the average stumble in an icy driveway. The type of impact you might endure from a catastrophic fall such as down a flight of stairs, on the other hand, can be risky for your abdomen as your belly gets bigger. Exercise regularly to maintain good coordination and balance, and be safe! Jogging? Yes. Ice skating? Maybe not.
The reality: the type of impact that is harmful to baby comes from catastrophic falls, not jogs or jumping jacks. Avoid situations where you can’t control your footing and stay active as your pregnancy advances so your brain knows how to coordinate your changing body & centre of gravity, helping you prevent falls.
3. You can’t start new types of exercise while pregnant.
Yes, you can, but why are you doing it? Starting a walking program, joining a prenatal aquafit class or starting some safe strength training for the first time in years are all safe and recommended in pregnancy. And if you ran, played soccer, or kick-boxed right up until the moment you peed on the stick, feel free to keep doing those things as long as you feel up to it and experience no pain or dizziness. If you feel motivated to up the ante in pregnancy, be honest with yourself and reflect on why you want to challenge yourself. The pressure to stay lean during pregnancy and sport the perfect “basketball belly” has been coined “pregorexia” by the media, and resources and specialists are popping up every day to deal with extreme exercise and dieting during pregnancy. Always wanted to commune with nature and join a hiking group? That’s a “new type of exercise” you should go for. Suddenly feel compelled to start spinning 5 days a week when you see the first signs of plumpness? Talk to your partner, friends and OB or midwife about safe weight gain and the emotions that are natural during this time of change.
The reality: don’t hold yourself back from trying new, safe activities in pregnancy such as swimming, hiking, or even horseback riding. Pay attention to your body’s signals and start all new exercises slowly, preferably with the coaching of an experienced professional or prenatal/postnatal specialist. Aim to maintain a good level of fitness in pregnancy, but not to drastically improve your fitness overall, to lose weight or prevent healthy weight gain during pregnancy.
4. Exercise during the first trimester of pregnancy is not safe. Yes, it is, but use common sense when getting started. A 2007 Danish study found extreme exercise (more than 1 hour per day at a high intensity, such as a long, hot tennis match) correlated with a higher risk of miscarriage before 18 weeks gestation (though no increased risk of miscarriage with strenuous exercise after 18 weeks); however, the study authors themselves suggested the women who miscarried might have been feeling more energetic and able to exercise strenuously early on because their pregnancies were, sadly, not advancing normally and doomed from the start. If you’ve not been exercising regularly and want to get started in the first trimester, begin with 10-20 minutes of brisk walking and/or bodyweight exercises at home, such as pushups, squats, and lunges, and increase the length of your workouts by 5 minutes each week.
The reality: The human body is meant to move a lot more than our modern lifestyles permit, even during pregnancy. If you’ve been exercising, simply continue doing what you’ve been doing! If you’re just getting started, check your ego at the door and build up gradually over the first few weeks, and don’t forget the strength training!
5. You should never let your heart rate rise above 140 beats per minute while pregnant. Maybe. Actually, probably you should. While you’re putting all the rest of this fantastic advice into action, you might wonder, “How will I know what’s ‘moderate’ and what’s ‘too strenuous?’” When prenatal exercise started to hit the mainstream in the 1980s-90s, general guidelines recommended maintaining a heart rate below 140 beats per minute (bpm) at all times. Now, the US and Canadian obstetric colleges have revoked this guideline because, quite simply, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Heart rates can vary so drastically from woman to woman due to genetic and conditioning factors, and can vary even from day to day in the same woman. Instead, use a “talk test” to determine whether you’re staying in that target zone, working hard enough to elicit the positive benefits you need but not so hard you might cause yourself injury. You should be able to talk, but not sing, while exercising.
The reality: spikes in heart rate during exercise, particularly sports and strength training, are normal and healthy during pregnancy. Keeping your heart rate low at all times won’t have you at your fittest, but gasping your way through your usual pre-pregnancy spin class isn’t reasonable, either. Be honest about how hard you’re working and use the talk test to measure exertion.
Dara has more information on the dos and don'ts of exercise while pregnant.
Guest expert, Dara Bergeron is a women’s fitness expert and founder of Belly Bootcamp fitness for modern mommies. Visit www.bellybootcamp.ca for fitness news, recipes & workouts especially for mommies and mommies-to-be.