Exercise During Pregnancy: Don’t Sweat It
These days it seems like everyone has something to say about what you can/can’t, should/shouldn’t do when it comes to exercise during pregnancy (much like with food — cue the eye roll).
The simple truth when it comes to exercising while pregnant is that it’s not that complicated.
Even though the media tends to amp up the “do this not that” side of things, exercising while you’re pregnant is not only safe, it’s also very beneficial.
Most of our ideas about limiting physical activity/exercise during pregnancy are vestiges of the Victorian period, when women were supposed to be dainty, fragile little things that stayed in the house, where they belonged; pregnancy was an illness. Even in the mid-1900s, the most widely-sanctioned “exercise” for expecting women was… housework.
Actually, all the way up until the 1970s/80s, exercise in general wasn’t really “a thing” — people who jogged were rare (and weird), and exercising per se was strange. So it’s not very surprising that most people raised an eyebrow at the prospect of pregnant women exercising. At the time, it was so bizarre that one woman who ran 4 miles daily throughout her pregnancy was featured in JAMA and made the topic of formal academic presentation. Hah!
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) issued guidelines sanctioning exercise during pregnancy for the first time ever in 1985, recommending the widely-cited-but-later-proven-erroneous heart rate limit (of 140 beats per minute) and a pretty strict time limit (15 minutes max of strenuous activity). It also warned against high-impact exercises like jogging. Tough break.
Only a decade later, though, ACOG already bagged these parameters^^ altogether (whyyy is anyone still talking about the heart rate thing???); and at the beginning of the new millenium, ACOG announced that the best advice for exercising during pregnancy was this:
“Pregnant women are now encouraged to follow general adult recommendations for PA [physical activity].”
Well now, isn’t that refreshing.
The 2020 ACOG Committee Opinion on exercise during pregnancy reiterates that exercise carries important health benefits for all women throughout the entire life cycle (improved physical fitness and weight management, better mental and emotional well-being, decreased chances of diabetes, etc.). There are also a handful of pregnancy-specific benefits, like reduced risk of gestational diabetes and hypertension or fewer problems with varicose veins, incontinence, and heartburn. It might even slightly lower the chances of cesarean delivery.
ACOG makes it perfectly clear: exercise is SAFE and beneficial for any normal pregnancy, so much so that pregnancy is even a great time to start exercising if you haven’t been.
The Latest on Bedrest
BTW, there is virtually no reason that you or any of your pregnant friends should be on bed rest. Here’s what ACOG says: “several reviews have determined that there is no credible evidence to prescribe bed rest in pregnancy… bed rest is not effective for the prevention of preterm birth and should not be routinely recommended.” [See also: Bed Rest in Pregnancy]
Yes, there are some things you should avoid throughout your pregnancy fitness journey:
- contact sports or do anything with a big “fall risk” or risk of impact (like downhill skiing, horseback riding, surfing, or ice skating);
- scuba diving;
- water polo;
- hot yoga, or any exercise in a super-hot room (it can “over-elevate” your core body temperature and has an increased association with neural tube defects).
There are no documented risks of exercise during normal pregnancy (for both developing babies and mamas), nor are there any documented associations of exercise with miscarriage or preterm labor.
OK, OK… all that’s well and good. But if you’re suffering from morning sickness, tired as all get-out, or just plain having a sh*tty day, don’t kill yourself. Just keep in mind that moving around, even simply going for a brisk walk, might actually improve your symptoms.
Whatever you do, DON’T expect your body to perform like its non-pregnant self. The belly is real (like you don’t already know that). You’re literally waking up in a new body every single day, so be patient with it and get to know it. Your balance will be different; your strength will be different; your endurance will be different; and your preferences will change. I used to LOVE jogging on the weekends, and then one day, three months into pregnancy numero uno — poof — it just wasn’t for me anymore. And that’s OK.
The biggest thing: listen to your body, and don’t do things that make you uncomfortable.
If you have any complications (i.e., placenta previa, ruptured membranes, preeclampsia, or severe anemia), have been told you have a high-risk pregnancy, or suffer from a pre-existing health condition (i.e., heart or lung disease), make sure you talk to your doctor about what and how to exercise throughout your pregnancy.
If there’s a particular flavor of exercise you already know and are still loving, stick with it! (And if you belong to a gym/fitness studio — digital or otherwise — get your fill of live classes now (if you can…) because you and your body will be on lockdown for a little while after you have a real live bona fide newborn baby — seriously). See also: Postpartum Fitness.
*Virtually any exercise modality can be modified to accommodate the pregnant body — instead of jump squats, just do stationary squats; instead of push-ups do wall push-ups, instead of heavy lifting, use lighter hand weights… I know many women that have practiced yoga, run, and done CrossFit, pilates and Insanity right up until D-Day. (Not saying that you have to — just sayin’ that you can.)
Unfortunately there isn’t an excellent comprehensive resource for pregnancy fitness modifications across exercise formats. Some things will just be obvious (you’re not going to be lying on your stomach after a certain point in time, for example)… If you attend a studio, call up and ask one of your instructors to help you out. If you exercise at home anyway, try googling “pregnancy modifications [yoga/CrossFit/barre/whatever].” There’s a lot out there you can use as a guidepost, in addition to trusting your own intuition about your limits.
Here are some other tips to keep in mind:
- Follow the “talk test” to gauge your exertion and avoid overexerting yourself — ideally, you could carry on a conversation while you’re exercising.
- Make sure you wear a comfortable sports bra.
Exercise During Pregnancy: Your Core
Contrary to popular opinion, you do not need to completely forego core exercises during pregnancy. In fact, building your core muscles during pregnancy can potentially help prevent or lessen diastasis recti (see below). (Though anyone — even avid exercisers — can still get it).
While you’re pregnant, your abdominal muscles necessarily stretch and loosen to make more room for your growing baby. Your core basically has to accommodate… and your goal for physical activity is to gently strengthen your core without worsening the natural slackening of your muscles.
Generally, most physical trainers and postpartum rehab experts suggest avoiding any ab exercises that can be described as “crunching” or “twisting,” since these could worsen the normal separation and loosening of your abdominal wall. (Plus it’s freaking uncomfortable.)
Instead, you can work out your core muscles with things like standing ab exercises, modified front or side side planks, cat/cows, or bird/dog poses. Many forms of yoga/pilates/barre also incorporate general abdominal and core strengthening into their routines (think: side angle pose) without having dedicated core work.
Yes, this is the big secret, friends: you don’t NEED to embark on a specific prenatal program when it comes to exercise.
That said, it can be a big help to follow a specific prenatal fitness program — it’s more convenient and often more empowering and supportive. Thankfully, many gyms and online programs are trending toward offering prenatal class variations, so keep an eye out for those if you already know what you like. (And even if your gym/studio/subscription service doesn’t have prenatal classes per se, just ask your instructor what modifications you can make to regular class activities.)
Everyone has different loves and hates when it comes to exercise, so it’s tough to offer blanket recs in the pregnancy fitness department, but if you’re looking to shake things up, still crying that your favorite yoga studio remains closed, need some suggestions, or just want to try something new, here are some tried and true picks from all of us at Lucie’s List as well as our wonderful readers (in no particular order):
You can also check out our postnatal exercise favorites and/or our favorite streaming workout subscriptions (free and paid) — there tends to be a good amount of overlap.
- BodyFit by Amy — a FREE online video library of prenatal and postnatal workouts led by a personal trainer (Amy). Most videos are 20-35 minutes. I love Amy’s site, and sooo many of our readers do too. This was our top-recommended fitness pick!
- Pilates — many classes are available online or in studio. Marissa especially loved this during her twin pregnancy for being so low impact.
- Swimming & Water Aerobics — If you live somewhere where it’s feasible to swim, this is one of the BEST forms of exercise. It’s low-impact, cardiovascular, and strength-training. Lots of bang for your buck. (Plus you can indulge in a maternity swimsuit!)
- Prenatal Yoga — there are tons of videos available online, and many studios offer prenatal classes. Also don’t forget that you can still take “regular” yoga classes and modify!
- Barre3 Prenatal ($29/month streaming access) — Barre3 classes are my personal fav RN. You can tailor any “regular” class with modifications (some of which are even led by visibly pregnant women) or check out the specific prenatal or postnatal classes.
- Fit4Mom Prenatal — Fit4Mom offers “Fit4Baby” prenatal classes in certain communities. If a program is available in your area, check it out. Moms love it for the community and the fitness. Many classes are outside, which is refreshing on its own, and your first class is free.
- Mommastrong ($12/month streaming access) — Many readers have told us Mommastrong was a lifesaver for them. It’s designed by a mom, for moms, and highly relatable.
- Juna App ($19/month or $107/annually) — A newer offering that fitness expert Sarah Kuhn designed and founded herself when she became pregnant and was disappointed with the lack of prenatal workout options available. It’s like NikeTrainingClub for pregnancy. *Use promo code LUCIE25 for a one-time discount of 25% off any subscription (monthly or annual), redeemable at the website: https://juna.co/.
- Studio Bloom ($29/month or $240/annually) — Bloom Method’s virtual on-demand fitness platform made exclusively for women who are trying to conceive, are pregnant, or postpartum. It’s chock full of classes focused on preparing your body for birth, whole body and pelvic floor strength, core, cardio, yoga, postpartum rehabilitation, mobility, and also comes with access to in-house pelvic floor physical therapists and nutrition info.
- Fit Pregnancy Club ($6/month for on-demand streaming) — FPC was an incredible in-person fitness studio for expecting moms in NYC that sadly had to close its doors on account of the pandemic. It’s currently offering a huge library of on-demand workout videos for just $6/month. The program is challenging and we love that it dedicates time in every class to pelvic floor exercises.
- Bodi (formerly Beachbody On Demand) Prenatal Program ($39/3-month access) — Readers tell us this program is imminently “doable” all throughout pregnancy, and great to have for afterwards as well.
- Bikini Body Mommy — ($14.99/month or $135.99/annually after 7-day trial) Another reader recommendation with lots of love.
Alright ladies, get out there (metaphorically speaking) and enjoy!
Awesome, thank you so much! I’m a physician and skeptical of a lot of info out there, but I love how researched and balanced your posts are. They’re informative and solid, and I appreciate the common-sense approach since the tendency to hyperbolize and catastrophize is so easy for some bloggers.
Keep up the great work! (I also very much respect your coronavirus post– well-done!)
BodyFit by Amy is phenomenal. I highly highly recommend.
Sidenote: Your implication is that pregnancy is not treated like a disease today?? That is somewhat laughable.
You should add Mod Physique’s online Mod Mamas classes – https://www.modphysique.com/. Their classes are great for both pre and post-natal.
Expecting and Empowered is a fitness company run by a registered nurse and pelvic floor physical therapist. They specialize in pregnancy and postpartum care/exercise. They have pregnancy and postpartum specific workout programs that are fantastic. They have a blog and are on Instagram. I highly recommend!
I’d like to add that as a yoga teacher, I have always taught (and been taught by my teachers) that while cat pose is great during pregnancy, cow pose should be avoided after the 1st trimester as it can exacerbate diasis recti, and since the pregnant belly is already causing a bigger curve in the spine, we shouldn’t encourage that movement any more. A great substitute is cat/tabletop where the focus is on hugging baby in to the body and strengthening pelvic floor muscles, while lengthening the spine (crown of head reaching away from the tailbone). Otherwise, this is a great post! Lots of good info here. Thank you!
Great article. Also, thank you to Abby for the note about Cow pose. I’ve been doing lots of prenatal yoga and still see that in some flows. One additional great resource – ALO yoga app. It’s great for beginner and advanced yogis, and I was surprised to find when I got pregnant that there are four different programs on prenatal yoga (great explanations on modifications and several meditations to improve mental health) and one awesome class on prenatal barre (mega butt burner). Highly recommend!
I’d add the ALO mobile app as a great resource. They have several prenatal series’ on there and a kick butt prenatal barre session.