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Pregnant? Here's what you should know about exercise

Working out while pregnant can benefit you and your baby.

pregnant woman stretching Credit: Getty Images / RichLegg

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I’ve been an athlete and fitness enthusiast all my life, so I have a pretty good idea of what works for me, exercise-wise. My favorite activities include rock climbing, hiking, cross-country running, and hot yoga. But over the past year, I’ve experienced a few things that changed up my workout habits—not only am I dealing with the typical pandemic-caused pivots in my exercise routine, I’m also 22 weeks pregnant. When I found out I was expecting, I knew I wanted to stay active, but I wasn’t sure how to do it with my changing body in my changing environment. If you’re like me and want to continue to meet your workout goals without having anxiety over jeopardizing the health of your “bun in the oven,” here’s what you should know about working out while pregnant—in every trimester.

Why work out while pregnant?

Pregnant Woman Exercising At Home with Dumbbells and with fitness ball
Credit: Getty Images / vgajic

Working out while pregnant has a lot of benefits.

Most of us are aware of the mental and physical benefits of working out in general—it’s good for your heart, lifts your mood, and can improve concentration. This is also true when you’re pregnant. There are a lot of great reasons to exercise while sporting your bump, according to Erica Ziel, founder of Core Athletica, Knocked-Up Fitness, and Core Rehab. People who work out while pregnant can expect “increased energy and mental clarity, adapt easier to body changes during pregnancy, minimize and prevent poor postural shifts and aches and pains, and ensure a stronger body and core so she has more support for her growing baby,” she says. Being active may help you feel more comfortable with your body as it’s changing, too. “Exercise helps expecting moms to work with body changes, rather than against them,” Ziel says.

There are also lesser known benefits. “[When you exercise], the body is better prepared for pregnancy and all the changes taking place; she’ll also be better prepared for birth and recovery postpartum,” Ziel says. According to the American College of Gynecologists (ACOG), exercising while pregnant can reduce back pain, ease constipation, and lower the chances of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia (or dangerously high blood pressure), and emergency C-sections.

Finally, exercise helps combat stress, which may cause some pregnancy complications in severe cases. You can’t control all sources of stress, but exercise is a proven way to lessen its impact. “Fitness will assist with decreasing overall stress level, which is huge because this has a powerful effect on the entire body including the HPA axis,” says Ziel. HPA axis is short for maternal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which undergoes drastic changes in pregnancy and postpartum and has an impact on the fetus’ and mother’s health.

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If you’re not super active already, starting a new exercise routine may seem stressful. But Ziel points out that working out doesn’t necessarily have to equate with strenuous, sweat-inducing activities. “In general, there are very few [pregnant people] who should not exercise,” she says. “Because ‘exercise’ is a very broad term, I encourage expecting moms who don’t feel like doing a lot of exercise or can’t do anything intense to still do light movement and breath work, which can be extremely powerful during pregnancy.” Some low-impact standbys that should work for most people: Prenatal yoga, Pilates, walking, and swimming.
Active pregnant woman holds a squat position while exercising in her home.
Credit: Getty Images

Exercise should still feel good when you're pregnant.

The cardinal rule is to be attuned to the needs of your body. If you have an ongoing workout routine, you can expect to maintain it, if perhaps with a few modifications. If you aren’t active, or you feel discomfort or pain when engaged in anything active, don’t push it—while exercise has many proven benefits for pregnant people in general, it may not benefit you. If you’re unsure about it, consult your medical practitioner first.

According to ACOG, people with some heart and lung diseases, severe anemia, preeclampsia, placenta previa (a condition in which the placenta covers the opening of the uterus), or are pregnant with multiple should avoid exercise unless you're cleared by your doctor. Also, if your doctor has placed you on bed rest, it goes without saying that you shouldn't work out. ACOG also advises avoiding heated workouts, like hot yoga or hot Pilates, contact sports that may involve getting hit in the stomach, activities that may results in a fall such as horseback riding or off-road biking, as well as extreme sports such as scuba diving and skydiving. If you feel any pain, lightheadedness, contractions, or experience fluid or blood coming from the vagina during your workout, cease the activity and call your doctor.

What you need to work out while pregnant

lululemon yoga mat and pregnant woman wearing beyond yoga clothes
Credit: Lululemon / Beyond Yoga

Comfy clothes and a good mat are essential to your prenatal workouts.

The basic supplies aren't different than for non-pregnant people. A good workout mat is always essential for exercising—and it’s vital when you’re pregnant and have more weight to support. We love Lululemon’s Reversible 5mm mat, which has a uniquely grippy surface that helps prevent slipping during workouts, even when you’re sweaty. It also has just enough give to make you feel supported without feeling too soft. For something more squishy, we like the Amazon Basics Extra Thick mat. You may also find that doubling up on mats works better for you than just one. If that’s the case, go for something like Everyday Yoga’s 5mm mats, which are lightweight and work well on their own or as a pair.

Your body will change a lot throughout each stage of pregnancy—your belly will grow (obviously) and your breasts likely will, too—so it’s important that your clothing makes you feel comfy and supported during your workouts. Ziel loves Beyond Yoga’s Maternity collection, which includes stretchy, stylish, and supportive leggings, tops, shorts, and pullovers. Gap also has an extensive maternity activewear section; its compressive full-length maternity leggings are particularly popular. If you don’t want to spend as much, you can find best-selling, highly reviewed leggings and tops on Amazon.

If you’re looking for a new sports bra, it may be a good idea to get one that's also a nursing bra so you can use it after giving birth. Ziel’s go-to brand is Cake Maternity. She says its bras are soft, supportive, and functional without feeling bulky or restrictive. For low-impact workouts, the Auden Yoga Nursing Bra from Target is also a good option—reviewers say it’s easy to snap on and off yet stays in place when you’re moving around, whether it’s used for exercising or not.

You may also want some other accessories, like an exercise ball (which is utilized in a lot of pregnancy-friendly ab workouts) and a maternity belt, which can give your belly extra support, especially in later trimesters.

Recognize when to change your existing workouts

Pregnancy exercise for good health for me and my baby
Credit: Getty Images / Vesnaandjic

You can expect to do more stability-based workouts when you're pregnant.

For her prenatal clients, students, and instructors, Ziel always offers the following guiding principles: “Any exercise a pregnant woman does should not cause pain, should not cause incontinence, and should not cause ‘coning of the belly,’ or when you see a ridge popping out down the midline of the belly.” Ziel also advises pregnant people to feel comfortable asking for alternative postures in a workout class. “Many forms of exercise during pregnancy require modifications such as less range of motion, decreasing the weight, or modifying the position slightly,” she says.

One type of exercise you should stop doing as soon as you know you’re pregnant? Crunches, sit-ups, and any other movement that causes the abdominal muscles to push out. “Gone are those days of squeezing those abs and ‘feeling the burn,’” Ziel says. “In fact, that can actually contribute to worsening diastasis recti (a separation of the abdominal muscles often caused by pregnancy) and poor pelvic floor connection.” Instead, try doing stability-based exercises, like planks, bird dogs, or balancing moves with an exercise ball.

You may also want to reevaluate your limits during cardio workouts. Ziel recommends implementing the “talk test,” to determine an appropriate exertion level: "If she finds she is super chatty, she can pick up the pace. Conversely, if she feels winded and has a hard time speaking short sentences, she’s working out too hard.” That said, if you’re accustomed to high-cardio activity—say, you’re a marathon runner, triathlete, or just do a lot of high-intensity workouts—you can keep doing your usual routine as long you don’t feel more winded than usual.

Finally, Ziel says prenatal yoga is a great activity, but cautions against getting too deep into the poses due to relaxin, a pregnancy hormone that allows your ligaments to soften and facilitate ease of birth. Relaxin can help you feel more flexible, especially in the pelvic area, and sometimes cause injury due to overstretching. To avoid getting carried away in an in-person class, let the instructor know you’re expecting so they can advise you on how to stay safe. And if you’re taking an app or YouTube yoga class, just stay mindful of your body’s limitations or seek out classes specifically for pregnant people—YouTube has a plethora of options (including Ziel's Knocked-Up Fitness classes) and apps like Aaptiv have full maternity workout sections.

Safe pregnancy exercises for each trimester

Surprise: Ziel says she doesn’t typically divide exercises into trimester for her clients. “It’s more individual because every woman’s body is different and some can continue things longer than others,” she says. With that in mind, she offers the following general guidelines to consider. Ultimately, she reminds pregnant people that if they’re ever unsure of how to move their bodies, consult a doctor first to ensure your safety and peace of mind.

First trimester workout modifications

The first trimester encompasses the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. You may not realize you’re pregnant right away (many people don’t start showing until the second trimester), but once you do, you can start making some minor modifications. You should also pay attention to your body and its cues—fatigue is expected in early pregnancy, so don’t be surprised if you have to take it easier than usual. “She may need to dramatically cut back her intensity, duration, and (amount of) weights she is lifting because at this stage in pregnancy, there’s a lot of mental and physical changes happening,” explains Ziel.

You can also start to implement small changes into your workouts. A good way to begin is by familiarizing yourself with the exercise ball you'll probably be using throughout your pregnancy. To strengthen your core and glutes, try using it for hip lifts. Get started by resting your head, shoulders, and upper back on the ball, with your hips in a bridge position at an angle that makes your back feel strong and supported. Gently lower your butt toward the floor, taking care to not roll off the ball, then bring it back up. To hold the ball steadier, you may want to prop it up against the wall.

Second trimester workout modifications

The second trimester, or week 13 to 26, is when pregnancies usually start to show. Most experts recommend avoiding lying on your back for long periods of time once the baby's growth kicks into high gear, as it can put the full weight of your pregnancy on your intestines and vena cava (the main vein that carries blood from your lower body to the heart). This can cause backaches, shortness of breath, hemorrhoids, and mess with digestion.

“Once it no longer feels good for her to be on her back then she should avoid it completely,” Ziel says. “However, if she is comfortable being on her back for a brief amount of time, consider pelvic tilts and hip rolls where she’s moving her hip upward that last 30 to 60 seconds, maximum. Once her hips are up, she no longer has the ‘lying on her back’ effect.”

Diastasis recti may begin in the second trimester, too. This is normal during pregnancy, but it’s crucial to stop doing exercises like crunches, sit-ups, and other exercises that make the abs push out (if you haven’t already), especially if you notice a gap that’s particularly wide (What to Expect says three-fingers width).

Instead of leg lifts—which can contribute to that overly-tense, pushed-out sensation with a pregnant belly—you can opt for kneeling side reaches, which work the glutes, inner thighs, and core. To do these, kneel down and place one hand on the floor in a modified side plank position (this is where doubling up on a mat can help). Lift up your top arm and leg and bring your elbow to your knee—they don't need to touch, especially if your belly gets in the way—maintaining some space in your upper back as you move. Bring your arm back up, re-straighten your leg, and repeat. You can also try a modified yoga flow with warrior and child's poses that don't go quite as deep as usual, but still provide an ample stretch.

Third trimester workout modifications

In your third trimester, or the 27th week to the end of the pregnancy, your range of motion could be limited. Ziel says to avoid what she considers more “risky” forms of exercise during pregnancy, especially those movements that require a quick shift in direction or are high impact, and those that are too intense or leave you feeling faint, dizzy, or short of breath. In the interim, she says that at this point, you’ll likely have a short yet trusted list of activities that are most comfortable and familiar to you—and this is completely okay. “Even if there’s not a lot of variety, as long as she feels good doing these exercises is what is most important,” Ziel says. “Overall, moving the body and keeping it strong is the priority.”

At this point, you aren't looking for exercise variety. However, if you’re feeling extra-tense in your back, Ziel recommends doing some modified cat-cow exercises. From an all-fours position and keeping your feet hip-width apart, alternate between simultaneously lifting your chest and tilting your pelvis, then dropping your chin and rounding your spine up slightly, creating curves in the spine that are gentler than it might be in a conventional cat-cow. This can alleviate stiff muscles, allow you to connect with your core, and stretch out the back without overextending your spine. She also loves a getting deep (safe) hip stretch by doing mermaid stretches, which involves sitting on the floor with one leg tucked in front and the other bent behind you. Place one hand (the one that matches with the tucked leg) behind you and exhale as you push up, extending your free hand above your head. This should create a satisfying stretch in your inner thighs and chest. With these moves, you'll feel strong, secure, and just loosened up enough.

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