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Exercise during pregnancy

Research has shown that healthy pregnant women can safely exercise during their pregnancy.

Exercise improves physical and mental wellbeing and can reduce the risk of developing gestational diabetes.

Your body goes through significant changes during pregnancy. There are three changes in particular that should be taken into account when it comes to exercise:

  1. The relaxin hormone increases the laxity of your ligaments. This can affect joint stability and increase the risk of injury.
  2. Your body’s centre of gravity changes during pregnancy.
  3. Your resting heart rate increases.

This guide was developed by a fitness professional in line with the guidelines published by Australian health and fitness peak bodies. However, we recommend speaking with a medical practitioner before engaging in exercise while pregnant.

Benefits of exercise during pregnancy

There are many benefits from exercising during your pregnancy. Some of these benefits can include:

  • Improving physical health.
  • Improving mental health.
  • Preparation for the physical demands of labour.
  • Faster recovery from labour.
  • Preparation for the physical demands of parenting.
  • Reducing the risk of developing gestational diabetes.
  • Reducing the risk of complications, such as pre-eclampsia and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
  • Improving posture.
  • Improving circulation.
  • Improving sleep.
  • Reducing back and pelvic pain.
  • Prevention and management of urinary incontinence.
  • Reducing the risk of depression or anxiety.

General recommendations for exercise during pregnancy

  • The level of exercise intensity (difficulty) should be light or moderate.
  • Strength training should be done at light to moderate levels of resistance. For example, you could use a light set of dumbbells.
  • Stay well hydrated during and post-exercise.
  • Wear comfortable clothing that is not too restrictive or tight.
  • Your feet may swell during pregnancy and as a result your shoes might feel restrictive and uncomfortable. You may need to purchase more comfortable shoes for exercising during your pregnancy. Alternatively, you could exercise barefoot, if it’s safe and comfortable to do so.
  • Exercise in a well-ventilated area or outdoors.
  • Do a gradual warm up before your exercise session. Warming up prepares your cardiovascular system by raising body temperature and increasing blood flow to muscles.
  • Do a cool down after your exercise session. Cooling down allows for a gradual return to your pre-exercise heart rate and blood pressure.

Suggested activities

  • Aerobics.
  • Cycling. You can ride outdoors or on a stationary exercise bike at home.
  • Pilates.
  • Strength training.
  • Swimming
  • Walking.
  • Water aerobics.
  • Yoga.

Exercises and activities to avoid

Some exercises and activities pose a greater risk during pregnancy and should be avoided. The list below outlines some examples of higher risk activities.

  • High intensity exercise, as there is a greater risk of increasing body temperature and heart rate beyond safe levels.
  • Any activity that involves holding your breath or the valsalva manoeuvre.
  • Stretching or movements that are beyond a comfortable range of motion or your pre-pregnancy range of movement. Increased ligament laxity that occurs during pregnancy can affect the stability of joints and increase the risk of injury.
  • Exercises performed in a supine position (lying on your back), particularly after your first trimester. Lying in the supine position can cause compression of the inferior vena cava by the uterus. The inferior vena cava is a vein that carries deoxygenated blood from the lower half of your body back to your heart. Impairing this blood flow may cause you to feel faint or dizzy.
  • Try to avoid overheating. You should not be feeling hot or sweating excessively.
  • Activities that place a significant load or pressure on abdominal muscles, including exercises such as sit-ups, planks or mountain climbers.
  • Lifting heavy weights. Strength training should be done at light to moderate levels of resistance.
  • Plyometrics exercises, such as box jumps.
  • Exercise in a hydrotherapy pool or spa.
  • Activities that involve significant changes in pressure, such as hiking at high altitude or scuba diving.
  • Activities that demand a high level of balance, co-ordination and agility, such as gymnastics.
  • Contact sports, such as Australian rules football, boxing or rugby.
  • Sports with a higher risk of player collisions, such as basketball, netball or soccer.
  • Activities with a higher risk of falling, such as horse riding, ice skating or skateboarding.
  • Activities with a higher risk of being struck by hard objects or projectiles, such as cricket or hockey.

Warning signs that you should stop exercising

If you experience any of the conditions outlined below, then you should cease exercising immediately and seek medical advice:

  • Excessive shortness of breath (dyspnea).
  • Dizziness or feeling faint (presyncope).
  • Fainting.
  • Headaches.
  • Chest pain or palpitations.
  • Blurred vision.
  • New or persistent nausea or vomiting.
  • Calf pain or swelling.
  • Unusual muscle weakness.
  • Any kind of pain or numbness.
  • Excessive fatigue.
  • Abdominal cramps or pain.
  • Pelvic pain.
  • Intense or new back pain.
  • Contractions.
  • Vaginal bleeding.
  • Leaking of amniotic fluid.
  • Any gush of fluid from the vagina.
  • Decreased foetal movement.

The list above has been adapted from the Pre and Post-Natal Exercise Guidelines from Fitness Australia and the Pregnancy and Exercise fact sheet from Sports Medicine Australia.


Fitness Australia: Pre and Post-Natal Exercise Guidelines

Sports Medicine Australia: The Benefits and Risks of Exercise During Pregnancy

Sports Medicine Australia: Pregnancy and Exercise fact sheet

Better Health Channel (Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria): Pregnancy and exercise

Article image credit: Nart MJNF, Flickr.

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