Pregnancy Exercise – What should you be focusing on?

Pregnancy Exercise - Pregnant woman with dumbbellsBefore I dive into the Pilates exercises you should be doing during pregnancy, I thought I would take a step back and write a post about the types of exercise you should be doing while pregnant generally. Pregnant women have specific requirements and restrictions that they should bear in mind when getting involved in any kind of exercise program.

As you read this post, I’m confident that it will become clear why Pilates is a good fit for many pregnant women – it addresses many of the exercise needs that pregnancy raises – but I also want readers to think more broadly about what they will be doing to stay fit and healthy during their 9 months.

Exercise & pregnancy

Exercise and pregnancy go together hand in hand. Staying fit and strong is the key to a comfortable pregnancy, to preparing your body for labour and a quick recovery after the birth. Having said this, your exercise priorities will change as your body changes throughout the 9 months. Although you are aiming to stay fit and strong, now is not the time to be trying to get uber-fit and super-toned. Your focus should lie in correctly exercising your body in a way that is safe for both you and your baby. Exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous to be beneficial.

In this post, I’ll cover general focus areas – what parts of the body you should be working on, how you should be working them and different forms of exercise you can do to achieve this.

Please note, the exercises included are just basic examples to give you an idea of the types of exercise you might choose to do. I will go into more detail in future posts.  Please don’t consider this a training program but rather a general introduction to exercise during pregnancy.

Tummy exercises

It is important to keep the abdominal muscles strong throughout your pregnancy to support the weight of your bump and the pressure it places on your back. In your first trimester, chest lifts (crunches) are still fine and a good way to strengthen and tone your abdominals. As your pregnancy progresses and you move into your second and third trimester, avoid curls and opt for tummy exercises in a different position rather than on your back. After 16 weeks, you should not be on you back for longer than 3 minutes because the weight of your bump presses on the main blood vessel bringing blood back to your heart and this can make you feel faint.

There are other ways to strengthen your tummy including:

  • On all fours: without arching the back, relax your tummy, allowing the belly to ‘hang’, then lift the belly up to the spine.
  • Standing with soft knees, feel the belly button drawing in towards the spine and release.

Kegel/Pelvic floor exercises

Better sex, easier delivery and lack of incontinence are a few reasons you should be working your Pelvic floor everyday. The act of contracting the Kegel muscle helps to strengthen it. I recommend putting a bright sticker on your steering wheel to remind you to do these while you are driving whether you’re pregnant or not!

To contract the Kegel/Pelvic floor muscle think of stopping your flow of urine mid stream. (Don’t actually do this while urinating as it leads to other complications such as bladder infections – this is just a guide as to what the contraction should feel like)

Lower back exercises

As the size of your tummy begins to increase, your centre of gravity shifts. Your abdominal muscles stretch out and weaken, changing your posture and putting strain on your back. In addition, the extra weight you’re carrying means more work for your muscles and increased stress on your joints, which is why your back may feel worse at the end of the day.

Good ways to strengthen your lower back include Pelvic Tilts. These are done lying on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor. You flatten your lower back along the floor and then release back to your natural curve. Pelvic tilts are a great way to relieve lower back tension but if you haven’t done them before, I’d make sure to start with supervision. Remember, lying on your back for more than 3 minutes isn’t a great idea during pregnancy so even if you’re experienced in these, keep the exercise short!

Upper back exercises

By the end of your pregnancy, your breasts may have increased in weight by as much as 900 grams. That’s why it’s important to invest in a good, supportive bra and make sure to continue with exercises that work the scapular stabilisers like shoulder dips on all fours.  The stronger these all important back muscles are, the better your posture will be throughout the pregnancy and the more comfortable you will be.

Arm exercises

With the average newborn weighing in around 3.4kg, your arms will be taking quite a bit of strain unless you have strengthened them before baby arrives. Having said that, heavy weight lifting is not recommended – pregnant women should not be lifting any more than 5kg and should focus on lighter weights than that! Adding light weights (1kg-2kg) to  arm exercises is a great place to start.  You’ll be happy that you did when you have baby in one arm and your baby bag in the other!

Cardio

The cardio you do during pregnancy should not be for fat burning purposes or to become super-fit but cardio still has its place in your exercise regime. Keep your cardio regular and gentle as this has many benefits for you and your baby. Regular exercise can help ease aches and pains, prevent excess weight gain and even give you a boost of energy to keep you feeling your best during pregnancy.

Regardless of experience level, all pregnant women should avoid cardio that puts them at risk for a major collision or fall, such as horseback riding, skiing, biking and contact sports. It’s especially important not to push your body too hard during exercise. To keep yourself within safe limits, check yourself frequently during cardio, using the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) from zero to 10.  Try to stay between 3 and 5 – you should be breathing more heavily than usual but still be able to talk comfortably.

Stretching

Stretching during pregnancy helps keep your movements free and comfortable and prevents muscle injury. Stretching can also relieve many of the common aches and pains associated with pregnancy, like low back pain and helps with relaxation.

Be careful not to overstretch as pregnancy causes an increase in a hormone called relaxin whose function is to allow the pelvis to widen in preparation for birth.  Unfortunately a side effect of relaxin is that it makes ligaments more elastic, like lycra, making over-stretching easier. So do some easy stretching but don’t make it too intense!

Swimming

Swimming is one of the safest forms of exercise. If you swam regularly before pregnancy, you should be able to continue without much modification. If you didn’t swim or exercise at all, you should still be able to swim, but check with your doctor first. The breast stroke is particularly beneficial in the third trimester, because it lengthens the chest muscles and shortens the back muscles, two areas that typically become misaligned as your body changes during pregnancy. Read more on the Baby centre’s website.

As you can see, there’s actually quite a variety of exercise option available to a pregnant women! However, all of them are gentle, can be easily modified and will work you in a way that prepares your body for the challenges of pregnancy.  Pilates itself can address many of the requirements mentioned above but that doesn’t mean it needs to be your only form of exercise.

No matter what exercise you choose to do during your pregnancy, please remember a few important things:

  • Check with your doctor before starting any new form of exercise
  • Ensure that you have supervision while you are exercising, especially when trying something new
  • Breathe! If you are holding your breath, you are depriving your baby of oxygen and encouraging tension in your own body
  • Don’t push yourself too hard – this is not the time. Use this time to focus on what’s important and listen to your body. If you can comfortably have a conversation while exercising, you should be fine

In my next posts I will go into more detail about specific Pilates exercises you can do during pregnancy. If you are pregnant and are interested in taking Pilates classes, please feel free to get in touch with me to discuss the right program for you.

Till then, look after yourselves!

Di

xxx

Read our previous post in this series: Pregnancy Pilates – Introduction

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Di

About Di

Dianne Piketh trained as a dancer before becoming a Pilates instructor. In 2009, she launched Studio 2 Pilates, a boutique Pilates studio in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town.

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