Once upon a time, and as recently as a decade ago, exercise and pregnancy were deemed a bad combination. Conventional wisdom held that women needed to take it easy for the baby’s sake and avoid any exertion that might put the fetus at risk.
Times have changed, and so has this thinking. It’s now common to see pregnant women running endurance races, lifting weights, and practicing yoga (not to mention hoisting heavy toddlers into shopping carts without hesitation) throughout their pregnancies. Search Instagram for #fitpregnancy, and it’s hard to believe pregnancy was once considered a time for women to rest.
This cultural shift comes on the heels of research suggesting that most exercise during pregnancy is safe — and actually offers a number of health benefits. Staying active can help reduce common discomforts (such as back pain), lower the risk of complications like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, reduce stress, boost energy, and improve sleep. It can also help the body prepare for and recover from childbirth.
Yet, while more women may feel at ease, practical advice on how to exercise during pregnancy in a way that supports long-term health is hard to come by. Physicians seldom discuss conditions such as diastasis recti, pelvic-floor dysfunction, preeclampsia, hyperemesis, and other conditions until they become an issue, despite ample evidence that women can take proactive steps to reduce the risks of their occurrence.
Even markers of an easy and uneventful pregnancy — the release of relaxin, a hormone that relaxes joints and ligaments in the pelvis, and an increase in overall blood volume and flow — usually aren’t considered when hitting the gym.
On top of these physiological changes, which vary widely, expecting to maintain your fitness during pregnancy and “get your body back” as soon as baby arrives can prove harmful to your mental health.
Women’s health practitioners and fitness experts agree that prospective mothers need more guidance. “Listen to your body” is a solid starting point, but there are plenty of other ways to safely and effectively stay active through each trimester and into the postpartum period. Our guide can help you find your just-right level of pre- and postnatal activity.
Connect With Your Core
Exercising safely during and after pregnancy is less about choosing specific movements and more about applying good strategy to how you move.
One of the most important choices you can make is to connect with your deep core muscles — particularly your pelvic floor, transversus abdominis (TA), and diaphragm — so they can support you during exercise. Following is a quick tutorial for connecting with these muscles.
- Practice good alignment: When you’re properly aligned, your pelvic floor, TA, and diaphragm communicate better and can more effectively stabilize your core, support your pelvic organs, and prevent leakage. While exercising, aim to keep your rib cage stacked over your hips and maintain a neutral pelvis. Avoid flaring your ribs or clenching or tucking your bum.
- Use your breath: Inhale deeply through your nose and focus on expanding your rib cage (as opposed to letting your chest rise or pushing your belly out), which will cause your diaphragm to expand and your pelvic floor and TA to gently relax. Then exhale through pursed lips, as if blowing out a candle. Your diaphragm will contract, your pelvic floor will gently recoil, and you’ll feel tension in your abdomen as your TA engages. It is just as important to be able to inhale and relax your pelvic floor and abs as it is to exhale and engage them.
- Coordinate your breath with movement: When performing a lift or exercise with a distinct work or concentric phase, exhale to connect with your core just before the work phase. Continue to exhale and stay engaged through the work, then inhale to relax on the movement’s eccentric or rest phase. If you feel you need more support in the eccentric phase, or if you find that you’re not relaxing your pelvic floor when you inhale, you can alternatively exhale through the entire rep and inhale between reps. The more demanding the exercise, the more you may need to intentionally recruit your pelvic floor and TA to support you. If an exercise has no distinct work or rest phase (such as running or holding a plank), focus on maintaining good alignment and breathing at your rib cage.