The benefits of exercise
A 1990 study regarding pregnancy and exercise indicated that women who continued to exercise during pregnancy had a 30 percent shorter labor and fewer obstetric interventions such as forceps and cesarean deliveries. Further, a 1995 study found that women who continued strenuous aerobic activity throughout pregnancy averaged smaller weight gains and accumulated less body fat.
However, before starting any exercise program, talk to your physician and make sure that you are not at any additional risk for injury and/or complications. If you are new to exercise, start slowly You may want to begin by taking a moderately brisk walk for 15-20 minutes three times a week. If you were exercising regularly before your pregnancy, you may find that you need to make only a few modifications to your regime. Stop exercising and call your physician, however, if you experience any of the following during exercise: vaginal bleeding or any unexplained excess fluid from the vagina, dizziness, fainting, extreme nausea and/or vomiting, a sudden increase in heart rate, or cessation of perspiration along with nausea and clamminess.
The best place to start when designing your workout is with the 1994 American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) guidelines for exercise during pregnancy. (These guidelines were updated in 2002.) ACOG guidelines state:
- Regular exercise, at least three times a week, is preferable to sporadic activity,
- Avoid exercise in the supine or back-lying positin after the first three months of pregnancy
- Avoid prolonged periods of motionless standing,
- Listen to your body while exercising (if something is painful or causes dizziness and faintness, don't do it!)
- Don't exercise to the point of exhaustion,
- Be aware of your changing center of gravity and don t do any type of exercise involving the potential for even mild abdominal trauma,
- Increase your caloric intake to compensate for the additional calories needed for a healthy pregnancy
- Drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise to regulate your body temperature and that of your baby
- Resume prepregnancy exercise routines gradually, since many of the physical changes of pregnancy persist 4 to 6 weeks after delivery.
If you cannot find an exercise class in your area designed specifically for pregnancy, you will need to devise your own routine. Every workout session should begin with an adequate warm-up period lasting 5 to 7 minutes to prepare your body for exercise. You can then move into the aerobic portion of your workout, which may include walking, jogging (as long as you can jog comfortably), biking, swimming, tennis and/or a low-impact or step aerobics class. You should plan for 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic activity to maximize the benefits to your cardiovascular system. At the end of the aerobic segment, cool down for at least five minutes by continuing to move slowly and rhythmically. Be sure to rehydrate your body by drinking plenty of water.
You can then move onto some strength training exercises for the upper and lower body,using light hand weights or resistance tubing. If you prefer to use the resistance machines at your health club, be sure to properly adjust the seat height and lower the amount of resistance as your pregnancy progresses, to avoid stressing your loosened joints. You should also incorporate abdominal and pelvic floor exercises into your workout routine, but be sure to avoid the back-lying position after the first three months of your pregnancy. You can effectively work the abdominals in a side-lying, quadruped (forearms and knees), or sitting position by exhaling as you contract the abdominals and inhaling as you release. Always end each workout session with a full body stretch to avoid muscle tightness and soreness the following day. Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. Avoid any ballistic or bouncing movements to reduce joint stress.
Pelvic floor exercises
The pelvic floor is a "sling" of muscles that supports your internal organs, e.g. your uterus, bladder and kidneys. As your pregnancy progresses, the uterus exerts more and more pressure on the pelvic floor and can cause it to collapse if it is not kept strong. If the pelvic floor collapses, you can develop problems such as urinary incontinence and/or uterine prolapse.
To keep the pelvic floor (also called the Kegel muscles) strong, you need to exercise them. You can find your pelvic floor muscles by stopping and starting the flow of urine when you urinate. The squeezing that stops the flow of urine are the pelvic floor muscles contracting. Now try contracting and relaxing your Kegel muscles while sitting at your desk, driving in your car and watching television! Aim for a goal of 100 Kegels each day.
You can continue exercising your Kegel muscles on a daily basis throughout your pregnancy and can resume them after the birth of your baby. Maintaining a strong pelvic floor will help you regain abdominal strength and tone, vaginal tone and bladder control. The exercises will also help your uterus contract back down to normal size after the birth. This is an exercise you should continue for the rest of your life. Start the habit now and soon "Kegeling" will be second nature.
By following these recommendations, you can safely continue to exercise throughout your pregnancy. As long as you feel good and stay healthy, exercise will make your pregnancy more enjoyable and will speed your recovery after childbirth. You will then have more energy to care for the newest member of your family.