Benefits and Risks of Exercise During Pregnancy

While most expecting women feel a lot of hesitation when it comes to the question of exercising during the period of pregnancy, research in the modern times has shown that working out during your first and second trimester can be a great idea and help you to keep a number of diseases at bay.

Simple forms of exercise like walking or stretching can give you a variety of benefits. However, exercising is not bereft of a number of possible complications.

If you are considering whether to start exercising or not, you should get in touch with your medical professional.

Here is a comprehensive list of all the possible benefits and the risks of exercising during the period of pregnancy to help you make a decision.

Benefits of Exercising During Pregnancy for Moms:​

  • Working out can significantly lower the risk of one of the simplest types of complications that come with pregnancy, i.e. gestational diabetes mellitus, abbreviated as GDM. Research in the field has shown that exercising larger muscle groups can be beneficial in normalizing the levels of blood sugar in your body by increasing the rate of utilization of glucose and your insulin sensitivity. If you are exercising during your pregnancy you will be less prone to developing GDM over others who don’t and the best benefits can be observed if you have started working out at least a year before your pregnancy and continue working out during the period.
  • Back pain is one of the most common problems that pregnant women experience during their pregnancy. If you are experiencing any type of back pain, exercise and yoga can be of use as they can help to offer relief.
  • Women who work out during their pregnancy period are likely to be fitter in middle age. It has been shown that women who exercised during pregnancy can run 2 ½ mins faster than others 20 years later.
  • Women who exercise have been shown to gain less weight during the pregnancy period as opposed to women who don’t work out. On an average you will gain about 7 pounds less if you work out, despite being in the healthy weight gain range.
  • Pregnancies can be complicated by problems like constipation. Often your intestinal tract may get over worked due to the high levels of hormones in your body, especially progesterone levels, complicated by a growing uterus. Exercising and a good high-fibre diet can help you to combat this and keep your digestion on track.
  • Exercising can help to increase serotonin levels which can help to combat prenatal depression.
  • Having strong abs and a good cardiovascular system can help you out during your labor and can help significantly with pushing in the case of a natural delivery.
  • With regular exercise you increase the chances of having a normal delivery which is extremely beneficial for the child. Studies show that women who exercise regularly during their periods are 75% less prone to have forceps delivery, 55% less likely to have episiotomy and 4 times less likely to have C-section delivery.
  • It can help you to get back your flexibility. Relaxin, which is a pregnancy hormone, can help to loosen the pelvic joint to help prepare you for delivery. By carefully stretching your body with prenatal yoga, you can gain flexibility as relaxin also relaxes all the other joints in the body.
  • It can have a direct impact on the duration of your labor. A study showed that women who exercise throughout pregnancy and have a normal vaginal delivery had around two hours lesser labor period on an average as opposed people who didn’t.
  • Swimming or water aerobics can provide women with relief from swollen feet and back pains due to the feeling of weightlessness.
  • Exercise can help to prevent swelling in your legs by improving the blood flow to your extremities.
  • Prenatal yoga can help with improved breathing exercises and can help to relax you and keep you from being stressed out and to stay calm. This can be of great importance during labor.
  • Exercise can be a great mood booster. Women who work out on a regular basis often report to have better moods than women who don’t.
  • Exercise can reduce the risks of preeclampsia, which is a medical complication where the mother develops high blood pressure and an increased level of protein in the urine which can put both the mother and the baby at risk and even can cause death.

Benefits of Exercising During Your Pregnancy for the Baby:

  • Working out during your pregnancy can reduce the chances of your baby developing diabetes in later life.
  • Babies born to women who exercised during their pregnancy generally have a fitter heart than others. A regular pregnancy workout routine can help to lower the heart rate of foetuses at the age of 36 weeks in gestation, which is a sign that the fetus is not in distress.
  • Working out may have an effect on the brain health and can prevent neurodegradation that causes diseases like alzheimer’s.

Risks of Working Out During Your Pregnancy Term:

Before you start exercising, however, you should be aware of the risks of exercising during your pregnancy period.

1
Risk of Abdominal Injury

Exercise can increase the potential for abdominal injury to the mother which is maximised in the case of blunt trauma to the mother caused by contact sports or any fall and can lead to foetal morbidity.

The causes of abdominal injury are primarily vehicular accidents (78%), assault and domestic violence being the two more documented causes. While exercising and sports participation has not been documented as a cause of blunt trauma.

Moreover the injuries are much less severe. However, with the increased risk of any kind of a direct blow to the abdominal area from contact with someone else or a ball/ racquet can cause blunt trauma.

With increased ligament laxity in pregnant women that can directly affect the joint stability, the likelihood of falling increases dramatically in pregnant women which can increase the risk of being injured by any hard object on the protruding abdomen.

Though the risk is very rare and quite low, there is a very clear possibility of a risk to the developing foetus and can cause a damage to the placenta or can cause a disruption in maternal placental interface.

2
Risks Due to Falling

Exercising can lead to increase of weight and a subsequent change in the centre of gravity which can increase a risk of falling, especially for sports that require balancing.

Moreover, an increase of ligament and joint laxity can increase joint pain in the sacro-iliac and the symphysis pubis joints.

This can increase the risk of ligament tear and injuries. Prevent playing contact sports and any activities that increases the risk of falling.

3
Birth Weight Increase

Some studies have linked exercising by the pregnant mother to an increase in the birth weight of the foetus. Increase in the birth weight can increase placental vascular volume which can lead to a greater extraction of oxygen and nutrients by the foetus.

On the other hand, if women exercise to a severe limit, especially in second and third trimesters, there can be a significant drop in the body weight of the foetus.

4
Hyperthermia

One of the problems that you will face during your pregnancy is that of maternal thermoregulation which means regulating your own body temperature. Exercise can overheat the body, especially in the first trimester.

Some studies on animals have shown a relation between hyperthermia and abnormality in spinal cord and other development. However, pregnant women do have compensatory mechanisms that can help them to dissipate the heat during exercising.

If blood flow is diverted from the uterus, changes in placental oxygen content to compensate for the lack can prevent any loss in supply of nutrients and oxygen to the foetus, which does reduce the potential for any malformation in the foetus due to hyperthermia in the mother.

However, there is a potential of overheating if they exercise vigorously in a hot weather. Avoid exercising in hot weather and stay hydrated.

5
Malnourishment in the Foetus

An increase in the levels of consumption of glucose from the muscles can cause a decrease in the foetal glucose levels.

There can also be a redistribution of blood from your internal organs to the skeletal muscle areas which can cause a reduction in the levels of nutrients and oxygen available to the foetus.

6
Premature Contractions

Some of the hormones released during exercise have the potential to induce premature contractions in the mother.

Complication Due to Pre-Existing Medical Conditions

Certain pre-existing medical conditions can also increase the risks of exercising in case of pregnant women. If you have any of the following medical conditions, seek your doctor’s opinion on whether it is safe for you to work out and the type of workout that is safe for you.

  • Incompetent cervix- This is a well known medical condition which can lead to the dilation of the cervix before the term of pregnancy is completed which can lead to a number of complications. Exercise can increase the potential for the dilation of the cervix before term if you have this condition. A number of related conditions where you should avoid exercising include premature labour, preeclampsia or pregnancy induced hypertension, premature ruptures in the membrane as well as persistent bleeding in the third or second trimester.
  • Placenta Praevia- This is a complication in the pregnancy where the mother’s umbilical cord remains firmly attached to the wall of the uterus and is covering/close to the cervix.
  • Restrictive lung diseases- any lung conditions that can impair the functionality of the lungs and restrict the proper expansion of the lung during breathing. Restrictive lung diseases can not only cause hindrance while you exercise, but also may lead to a reduced lung function and restrict proper breathing and ventilation.

Pregnancy Workout Routine- Do’s and Don’ts

If you are looking for a pregnancy workout routine, the ideal time is 150 minutes of activity per week. You can either go for 5 half hour sessions or 3-4 long classes. Even if you can’t put in that much effort, some exercise is better than nothing.

Start slow with 5 minutes of activity per day like a brisk walk and increase till you reach 30 minutes. Take all the necessary precautions like avoiding contact sports or activities with risk of falling.

Stop working out at if you are lightheaded, short of breath, feel contractions/decreased foetal movement or have vaginal bleeding/fluid discharge and contact a doctor immediately.

Exercises for Pregnancy and Their Benefits

  • Walking- Increases stamina and strengthens the heart and lungs.
  • Water based exercises- Can reduce strain on joints and strengthen the heart and lungs.
  • Prenatal Pilates- Strengthen core muscles.
  • Prenatal yoga- Increases stamina, strength, tones the body and relaxes you.

Exercises to Avoid During Your Pregnancy

  • Contact sports- Sports like basketball, soccer or football and ice hockey increases the chance of blunt trauma to the abdomen.
  • Fall prone activities- Skiing, horseback riding, riding a bike outdoors can increase the risk for falling and can increase chances of injury.
  • Lying on your back- Do not go for crunches, yoga poses or other activities that need you to lie on your back for more than a few minutes.
  • Bouncing/jarring activities- Kickboxing or high-impact aerobics should not be played during this time as your joints are looser and can cause injury.
  • Deep sea exploration- The change in pressure can cause decompression illness in the baby.
  • High-altitude exercise- Do not exercise at an altitude of above 6,000 ft when you are pregnant. Look out for headaches, vomiting, nausea, dizziness, fatigue and shortness of breath. Contact a doctor immediately if you experience any of these signs.

Before you enroll in any exercise, always contact your doctor to be informed about the possible health risks, however, in moderation, exercise can help you to combat many of the effects of pregnancy and can help you to have a healthier, happier pregnancy period.

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