pregnancy

Exercise during pregnancy: The 7 best (and safe) exercises to do during pregnancy.

It wasn’t all that long ago that women were told to take it easy when they were pregnant, and do nothing more strenuous than go for walks. Things have changed. 

“There used to be a misconception that exercising to any degree of intensity was dangerous for the pregnancy,” Melbourne obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Philippa Costley tells Mamamia. “We know now that’s not true.”

In fact, the latest guidelines on exercise during pregnancy say women should be aiming for between 150 and 300 minutes of “moderate intensity” activity a week. That means you should feel you’re exercising “somewhat hard” for around half an hour a day, most days of the week. If you’re not used to doing any exercise when you fall pregnant, you should start slowly and work your way up, then continue exercising through the pregnancy until it becomes uncomfortable.

“Exercise helps your body during the pregnancy and also during the recovery following your pregnancy,” Dr Costley explains. “If you have better fitness and tone during the pregnancy, you recover more quickly.”  

As for the belief that fitter women have an easier time with labour and birth, Dr Costley says that’s generally the case, but not always.   

“Some women who are fit still have complications during birth and some women who are unfit have no issues at all.”

Personal trainer Sam Wood began developing a “pregnancy safe” exercise program as an extension of his 28 program, which has been popular with women. He’s a big believer in the mental benefits of exercise – “it keeps your mood high and keeps you feeling energised” – as well as the physical benefits. 

Sam Wood shares 5 exercises you can do anywhere. Post continues after video.

“I’ve trained women right up to two, three, four weeks before giving birth,” he says. “You change the exercises, you slow things down, but if your body is used to doing resistance training and gentle cardio, you should keep going with it. Your body will thank you for it.”   

All pregnant women should check with their doctor or midwife before starting an exercise program. Women with certain pregnancy complications – such as pre-eclampsia, incompetent cervix, uterine bleeding and low-lying placenta in late pregnancy – are likely to be advised to avoid exercise completely. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Pregnant women should also make sure to avoid certain types of exercise that could harm their unborn babies. This includes anything with risks of falls or collisions – skiing, horseriding, martial arts, contact sports – or involving high temperatures, such as bikram yoga.

On top of that, women should know the signs that they need to stop exercising. Among these are abnormal bleeding, unexplained chest pain, and dizziness or feeling faint. 

So what types of exercise are best? According to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, pregnant women should be doing a mix of aerobic exercise (or cardio) and strength training. Here’s a rundown:

Resistance training

“Resistance training’s great because it keeps you strong and toned,” Wood says. 

During pregnancy, it’s important for women to strengthen their core and back as they start to carry a lot of extra weight. 

“Keeping those muscles strong is a really good way to lessen or even prevent back pain,” he adds.

Pregnancy plan

Wood says it’s good to mix up the resistance training exercises every week or two, to continually challenge muscles. He gives this as an example of a circuit, where women could do up to 20 reps of each exercise:

Couch squats: Sitting with your butt on the couch, stand up and go into a calf raise, lifting your heels off the ground. 

Dumbbell curls: Holding light dumbbells, slowly curl your hands up towards your shoulders, keeping your elbows hugged into your sides. 

Tricep dips: With your hands on the edge of the couch, facing forward, lower yourself down and then bring yourself up again, keeping your butt as close to the couch as possible. 

Modified push-ups: Put your hands on the kitchen bench and do push-ups leaning against it. 

Arm/leg extension: Get on all fours, with your hands directly below your chest and your knees directly below your hips. Extend your opposite leg and arm, pause, then lower, and extend the other opposite leg and arm. 

Finish with a modified plank, which involves supporting yourself with your forearms (elbows directly below shoulders) and knees. Only hold for a short time (eg 10 seconds) and remember to keep breathing.

Walking/running

Walking, at a brisk pace, is a good form of cardio during pregnancy. It will help you keep fit and control your weight gain. It’s safe and simple, and can be easily fitted into a daily routine. 

Running is even better in terms of fitness and building endurance, but pregnancy isn’t the time to take up running, because it carries extra risks, including falls. However, women who ran before they got pregnant often want to keep it up, and that’s usually fine. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“They go a bit stir crazy without it,” Wood says. “Of course they keep it safe, of course they keep it sensible.”

Pregnancy plan

If walking is your only form of cardio, you’d want to be walking at least three times a week, for at least 30 minutes at a time, at a brisk pace. But if you’re not used to doing any exercise at all, you should start with shorter, slower walks. 

For women who want to keep up their running during pregnancy, Wood advises reducing the intensity when pregnant and avoiding running on hot days. He advises keeping an eye on their heart rate and making sure it doesn’t go above the 140s. One suggestion is to drop back from a run to a combination of walking and jog. He says most women stop running after their second trimester. 

Pilates

“Pilates is a good exercise for maintaining muscle tone and strength,” Dr Costley says. “Supervised Pilates with a physiotherapist can be extremely beneficial in helping with any issues such as pelvic instability or back pain.” 

Pregnancy plan

Pregnancy and postnatal trainer Dahlas Fletcher, from Bodyfabulous, tells Mamamia that these modified Pilates moves are suitable for any trimester of pregnancy.

Clam: Lie on your side, making sure that your shoulders and hips are in a straight line and your thighs are at a 90-degree angle to your hips, with your feet behind them. Lengthen your arm underneath your head so there’s no tension in the upper body. Then hold your toes together, and with your hips stacked on top of each other, gently open your knees (without twisting pelvis) and close them. Focus on breathing (exhale as clam opens/inhale as lowers), never holding your breath. 

Repeat 8-10 times. 

Pelvic tilt: Get on all fours, with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips in a tabletop position. Do a very gentle pelvic tilt, so moving your pubic bone towards your belly button as you exhale, but not to the point of tucking and sucking or clenching. Then inhale and let go. Try a visualisation as you exhale – maybe a jellyfish floating up, or a coffee plunger coming just a bit off the bottom of a pot, or an elephant picking up a blueberry without squashing it.

Repeat 8-10 times. 

Bird dog: Again, start on all fours, with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips in that tabletop position. Extend one arm out in front and the opposite leg out the back. Lengthen out, and then bring your knee and elbow back in, letting the muscles do it. Then do the same with the other arm and leg. Exhale, reach, inhale, come in, switch over. If balance is a challenge during pregnancy, you can just drag your toe along the ground instead of lifting it. Or you might just want to start with leg only, then arm. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Repeat 8-10 times. 

Do two to three rounds of these exercises. 

Swimming

Swimming has all the usual benefits of cardio, plus the big advantage of making pregnant women feel lighter. 

“It can take pressure off, especially in the third trimester when a woman’s weight is making it more difficult,” Dr Costley explains. “If women have any issue with their pelvis, knees or ankles during the latter stages of their pregnancy, exercise in water can be an effective way of maintaining some level of fitness.” 

Pregnancy plan

Fletcher suggests swimming two to three times a week for 20 minutes at a time. Women who swim regularly might want to swim 50m freestyle, then take a 10-second break, then grab a kickboard and kick for 50m, then take another 10-second break, then swim again. It should always feel good, never getting to the point of breathlessness. Women who aren’t regular swimmers might want to spend that 20 minutes just walking in the shallow end of the pool.   

Yoga

Deb Young, the creator of online pregnancy yoga program Stretch And Glow, says prenatal yoga is a “complete mind-body practice that ticks all the boxes”.

“According to research women who practice prenatal yoga are more likely to have better sleep, less back pain, less stress and anxiety and lower levels of perceived pain in labour,” she tells Mamamia.  

Pregnancy plan

Young has put together this 10-minute prenatal yoga program for all trimesters. 

pregnancy exercise
Further step-by-step instructions below. Image via Stretch and Glow.

Seated forward fold to release tight hips. Repeat on both sides.

Seated side flexion to create space. Repeat on both sides.

ADVERTISEMENT

Cat cow. Inhale, look up.

Cat cow. Exhale, round back.

Child’s pose to release lower back tension. Hold for 5-10 breaths.

Kneeling chest opener to relieve poor posture. Hold for 5 breaths. 

Side angle pose to develop strength. Hold for 5 breaths.

Warrior II to build stamina and focus. Hold for 5 breaths. 

Triangle pose with blocks to release tight hamstrings. 5 breaths. Repeat both sides. 

Side lying quad release to help ease sacroiliac pain. 5 breaths. Repeat on both sides.

Alternate nostril breathing to reduce stress and anxiety. 2 minutes.

Side lying relaxation to unwind and relax. 5 minutes.  

Cycling

Wood says cycling is a great cardio workout when pregnant.   

 “It’s low-impact and you can control the intensity pretty easily, particularly on an exercise bike,” he explains. 

He says exercise bikes are good from a safety perspective, and it doesn’t cost much to hire one for the duration of the pregnancy. 

Pregnancy plan

Women might want to cycle on a stationary bike for up to 20 minutes at a time, but they don’t have to be going full-pelt that whole time.  Wood suggests working at intervals – turning it up to a high level and cycling for one minute, then dialling it down to a low level. Again, he says women should monitor their heart rate and not let it go above the 140s. 

Pelvic floor exercises

All women should be exercising their pelvic floor muscles every day throughout pregnancy (and beyond). The aim is to improve the tone of these muscles, to minimise the risk of incontinence and numerous other problems after the birth. 

Dr Costley recommends speaking to a women’s health physio before starting these exercises.  

“A women’s health physio can guide you on what exercises might be specifically suitable to you and they can often check that you’re doing pelvic floor exercises correctly so that you optimise the use of them,” she says. 

Pregnancy plan

Get into a comfortable position, whether standing, sitting, on your hands and knees or lying on your back with your knees bent and legs apart. Imagine what muscles you would use to stop yourself from urinating or passing wind. Tighten those muscles and hold them for up to eight seconds, then let go. Repeat up to 10 times. 

Next, do a quick squeeze and let go of those same muscles. Repeat up to 20 times.

Do these exercises, ideally in a range of different positions, up to three times a day.

00:00 / ???