By Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie
Whether you're a bona fide gym rat or you've been meaning to get in shape for years and never quite got around to it, there's nothing like having a baby on the way to send your get-healthy motivation soaring. You may have even heard about women successfully running marathons right up until the final weeks of their pregnancies. But is exercise healthy, or even safe, for that little life growing inside of you?
Doctors used to be more cautious in endorsing exercise during pregnancy, but growing evidence has shown clear benefits for both the mother and baby. Research has found that babies born to active mothers have healthier hearts and are less likely to become obese, while moms-to-be who exercise may have an easier birth and a faster recovery afterwards.
In addition, exercising during pregnancy will help control weight gain, boost cardiovascular fitness, improve circulation and posture, increase muscle strength, relieve muscle aches and cramps and reduce digestive problems like constipation, which is common during pregnancy.
Ready to get started? Be sure to check with your doctor first. Then read on to find out how to safely exercise during pregnancy and which exercises you can try.
The best workout for you and your baby depends on how much exercise you were used to doing leading up to pregnancy. Women with certain risk factors should consult with their doctors before starting an exercise program, or stop exercising and speak with their doctors if they develop any of the following during pregnancy:
If you experience any of the following symptoms while exercising, stop and call your doctor immediately, even if you've been cleared for exercise, as these are symptoms of possible medical emergencies, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology:
The workouts that follow are generally safe to do throughout pregnancy unless you have certain complications or your doctor tells you to avoid all exercise. If certain exercises become impractical or uncomfortable, especially during the last trimester, stick to what feels good for you, and make sure to communicate with your doctor.
Safe for anyone (even beginners): Walking
Walking is a great way to start exercising, pregnant or not: it's easy, you can do it anywhere and you don't need any special equipment. Brisk walking has also been shown to improve mood, energy and sleep quality — all good things when your belly is growing bigger by the day!
Tip: Walking up to 30 minutes on most days of the week is a great goal, but you can break that into chunks of as little as three intervals of 10 minutes each throughout the day.
Safe for anyone (even beginners): Swimming
Arguably the perfect exercise for pregnancy, water provides healthy resistance to gently tone your muscles (14 times the resistance of air!) while keeping you cool, taking pressure off your back and even limiting leg swelling. And thanks to the buoyancy of water, this is one activity that you can feel graceful doing even in the later stages!
Tip: If lap swimming isn't your thing, try water walking or a water aerobics class for similar benefits.
Safe for anyone (even beginners): Bicycling
Gentle on joints, biking is a great way to fortify your heart and your lungs while strengthening your legs.
Tip: Biking can get tricky as your belly grows and your balance gets iffy. Stick to stationary cycling if you feel unsteady, especially later in pregnancy.
Safe for anyone (even beginners): Aerobics classes
Low-impact aerobics provide great full-body cardio. If you don't belong to a gym or YMCA, check at your local community center or church for classes, or try a DVD.
Tip: If it's not a class specifically designed for pregnancy, make sure to tell the instructor that you're pregnant beforehand. She'll be able to offer modifications for any exercises that are unsafe or uncomfortable for you.
With a few exceptions (no downhill skiing, contact sports or scuba diving), you can keep doing many of the things you did before you were pregnant — in moderation. Talk to your doctor about what is safe for you to continue.
Safe for experienced exercisers: Running
Olympic marathoners Deena Kastor, Kara Goucher and Paula Radcliffe have all made headlines for running throughout their pregnancies. If you were a regular runner before becoming pregnant, you can likely continue. Just don't expect to keep the same pace you did before (it will take more effort to keep a slower pace). If the bouncing of running becomes uncomfortable as you progress, brisk walking can make a good alternative.
Tip: Stick to a pace that allows you to chat with a running partner in order to ensure you're not overdoing it.
Safe for experienced exercisers: Lifting weights
Strengthening your muscles can help to ease some of the typical aches and pains of pregnancy — not to mention get you ready for hoisting that bundle of joy around with you in a few months! But do not lift heavy weights! Keep them on the lighter side: use weights that you can comfortably lift at least 10 times.
Tip: Avoid jerky movements since pregnancy loosens up the ligaments that support joints, making them more prone to injury. Do exercises in a smooth, controlled fashion, sticking to manageable weights (no power lifting).
Safe for experienced exercisers: Tennis
If racquet sports are your thing, you can keep playing during pregnancy, but just like running, expect to slow down your game.
Tip: The extra weight in the front of your body shifts your center of balance, which makes quick movements risky, so keep it in control to avoid falls or other injuries.
Natalie is a health and fitness writer, runner, and ACE-certified personal trainer based in Syracuse, New York.
Published October 17, 2011.