Vail health column: A brief guide to staying fit during pregnancy
Gestating? Expecting? Bun in the oven? No matter what you call it, many women are pregnant and wondering whether they can exercise while their bellies grow. Even though I work with pregnant women daily, I felt unsure about what I should and shouldn’t do during my first pregnancy when it came to my own body. I really wanted to stay fit and active but not do anything that would harm my baby or me long-term.
So, here, distilled into nifty little bullet points for you, is what I found, have adhered to and recommend to my pregnant patients.
• Clear it with your doctor first. If you have a medical condition that exercise would exacerbate or possibly harm your baby, enjoy your 10-month vacation from working out and realize that you can get your fitness back after you have the baby.
• “If you feel good, your baby feels good” is one of my mantras. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology once recommended expecting mothers keep their heart rate below 140 beats per minute. This recommendation was overruled in the 1990s, but somehow, we mamas keep hearing it today. Not only is exercise not bad for your baby, it actually causes a “good stress” to your baby that can help him or her hold up through the stress of labor.
Go by how you feel. If you are able to talk and work out at an exertion level that feels good to you, your baby should still be getting plenty of blood flow and oxygen. There is sufficient blood flow to the placenta to sustain short bursts into the anaerobic zone. That said, your baby will start getting less blood flow after 60 seconds or so of working in the anaerobic zone, so try to keep these bursts short with good recovery between.
• More stretching is not always a good thing. Often when we hurt, our first instinct is to stretch out. During pregnancy (especially if this is not your first), our ligaments get stretchier. Often, our pain comes from our muscles going into spasm trying to protect the joints. So if you’re stretching an already overstretched joint, you may cause more pain, rather than less. Gentle stretching can be helpful, but if you get increased pain with stretching, back off. Still hurting? This might mean you need to see your favorite, friendly physical therapist.
• Do your Kegels! I know you’ve heard it a million times, but Kegel exercises protect you against incontinence during and after pregnancy. These muscles also improve blood flow to your pelvic floor, which builds healthier muscles. Healthier muscles are more resilient during labor (i.e., less pelvic trauma from birth and less trouble healing after delivery).
• Cool it on the abs. Abdominal separation, or diastasis rectus abdominus, is common during and after pregnancy. The most at-risk populations for an abdominal separation during pregnancy are people who are either really weak or really strong. Being too weak means that the muscle doesn’t have the integrity to tolerate the stretch that a baby creates. Being too tight means that the muscle is so strong that it actually causes a separation in the fascia down the middle of your belly.
Your best bet is to consciously and gently engage your abs during your workouts, but wait on crunches, sit-ups, planks, leg lifts, etc., until you’re cleared to go back to exercise after delivery.
Bonus: Start working on Kegels and gently drawing in at your belly button within a week after labor. Do not work into pain with these. If you have good coordination in these deep core muscles, you’ll likely be safe to return to using your six-pack muscles and obliques when it’s time.
These guidelines are intended to help you stay fit through your pregnancy and set you up to return to all of your favorite things after your little one arrives. Stay strong and rock on, sisters!
Stephanie Drew is a physical therapist with Howard Head Sports Medicine in Edwards. She is also a board-certified women’s health specialist. Email your questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.