Staying Fit While Pregnant: General Guidelines

Megan Dahlman
March 14, 2022

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The moment you become pregnant, you have some incredible feelings of elation and excitement, but underneath all of that you feel a small sense of this is the beginning of the end for your body. Cue the downward slide into saddlebags, weak knees, baby pooches and mom jeans. While it is true that this little one will take over your body for a couple years (especially if you choose to nurse), you don’t have to be a victim, resigned to having a squishy “mom bod" until your kids are in school.

It doesn’t matter what your fitness history looks like up to this point, I am happy to say that you can absolutely exercise during pregnancy. And you should! The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), has shown that women who stay active, prioritizing purposeful exercise during their pregnancy, have healthier pregnancies in general, easier labors and deliveries, faster recovery times and even healthier babies. In fact, performing cardiovascular exercise during pregnancy can positively affect your baby’s own cardiovascular system, allowing her to endure the stresses of labor and delivery with a more stable heart rate. Pretty cool, huh!

Before pregnancy, you only had yourself to worry about when exercising. Obviously, now you have a precious person inside of you whose health and safety is of utmost importance. It is essential that you maintain appropriate levels of exercise that don’t harm the baby or you.

It’s understandable that you may be fearful to exercise if you’re pregnant, especially in the first trimester. Our bodies are pretty amazing at growing, nourishing and protecting a baby, though. You’re not as fragile as you might think at times, so it’s really okay to workout. However, it is more important now than ever to listen to your body’s signals.

The following are some general guidelines for pregnant exercisers that are agreed upon by the ACOG, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Get the doctor's Ok.

Most importantly, your physician should give you the green light to exercise. Sometimes, exercise may not be recommended for certain pregnancies, so make sure you are cleared to workout. However, if you had been exercising leading up to your pregnancy and prior to finding out you were pregnant, it is most likely acceptable to continue to exercise until your first appointment with the doctor or midwife. Just be careful to follow each of the following recommendations.

Aim for about 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.

If you’re used to working out 3 days per week for one hour at a time, try to break this up and spread it out. If you’re not used to exercising at all, that’s okay. You can start with some very light activity such as walking or swimming, building up to 30 minutes on most days.

Take it easier.

If you are a regular exerciser, knock your intensity down several notches from what you’re familiar with. Chances are, your body will self-regulate in this regard. You will get winded much more easily and your heart rate will climb faster. (Did that flight of stairs just feel like Mt. Everest?) You will naturally want to take breaks, and that is perfect. Don’t push through this. Instead of doing large circuits of exercises, perform just two or three exercises in a row then take a good break. If you were to term the feelings of your workouts, they shouldn’t be more than “somewhat hard”.

Stay cool.

Avoid exercising in high heat or humid environments. (Sorry, bikram yoga is not for you.) Your baby naturally has a temperature one degree higher than yours, so when your core temperature increases, hers will too to a greater extent. Make sure you have a good fan and drink plenty of ice water during your workouts. Having sweat pouring (while usually a great workout accomplishment!) should be avoided.

High reps, light weight.

Keep your repetition range on the higher side. Aim for about 10-15 reps with a lighter load. If you’re doing bodyweight exercises, adjust the intensity of the exercise to keep you in this range. By doing this, you will maintain your strength without the risk of strain (or the risk of the next point...).

Don’t hold your breath!

When strength training, it’s natural to momentarily hold your breath to help brace your body for a hard load, especially during upper body movements. This can increase your blood pressure, which may be very dangerous for you and the baby. Practice timing your breathing with your movements to make sure you don’t hold your breath. Exhale for the “pushing” part of the movement, and inhale for the “letting out” part of the movement.

Don't lay down.

Avoid lying on your back once you really start to show, usually about halfway through your second trimester. The weight of your uterus can actually sit heavy on a major artery, slowing blood flow to the uterus. As I said before, though, your body is amazing and will HATE being in this position anyway…it’s so uncomfortable. So, this point isn’t something to be overly concerned about. (I used to wake up in the middle of the night freaking out because I was flat on my back for who knows how long! Clearly we were all okay. I think if this was a really dangerous position for us to be in, God would have put that artery somewhere else.)

Don't fall, duh.

Steer clear of anything where you could fall and cause trauma to your belly. For some reason, ACOG recommends riding a bike during pregnancy, but I can’t quite recommend that one myself. Your balance becomes so challenging with a large belly, so safely climbing on a bike seems strange to me. A stationary bike? Sure. It’s your call on this one. Just make sure that you are in complete control.

Don't jump too much.

Be extra cautious with anything bouncy, mostly for your own sake. As your pregnancy progresses, your tendons and ligaments begin to relax, which will allow for your pelvis to expand during childbirth. But, it also makes your joints less able to absorb and distribute impact. Because of this, you’re much more susceptible to sprains and strains. Hold off on the plyometrics for a while.

Don’t do anything drastic.

If you have been pretty fit and a good exerciser leading up to becoming pregnant (which is ideal of course), you can probably continue doing the same stuff. If you are sedentary, now is not the time to start implementing a serious workout program. I would recommend my Postpartum Renew program or Jumpstart 30, and perhaps some moderate walks for 15-30 minutes, giving yourself a full 48 hours between workouts. You can slowly build up to exercising for 30 minutes most days of the week.

With all of this in mind, just make sure to do what feels comfortable, especially toward the end of your pregnancy. Strength training, running, tennis, yoga, cycling, walking and swimming may all feel great and keep you in line with the above recommendations during the first and second trimesters. But, in your third trimester, only a couple things might feel okay.

Personally, going for a walk was horribly more uncomfortable for me than basic strength training and yoga. I had to discontinue regular walks around 36 weeks, but I could strength train and do easy yoga until 40 weeks with both of my pregnancies.

Every momma’s body is different and every pregnancy is different. Make sure you are following these guidelines, but also listening to your body, doing what feels comfortable and keeps you moving.

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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