This article was co-authored with Erin Chalat MD.
When female athletes become pregnant and experience the dramatic physical changes that accompany pregnancy, it can be difficult to navigate training. Concerns about both self and the baby are normal and the bombardment of advice and personal stories available on social media sometimes serve to confuse more than help.
Fortunately, a recent committee opinion by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated, “Women with uncomplicated pregnancies should be encouraged to engage in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises before, during, and after pregnancy”, noting that it is important to discuss the training plan with a doctor to ensure there are no medical conditions that warrant attention.
That’s good news, but it doesn’t mean that exercise during pregnancy is simple. Many women experience symptoms like fatigue, nausea, and bloating and feel like the body they’ve come to know so well is full of surprises. Working out may be challenging or uncomfortable, causing motivation to lag. But there are reasons beyond staying fit that indicate exercising during pregnancy is the right thing to do. Regular movement and exercise are good for you and your baby even after birth and into childhood.
Benefits of Regular Exercise for the Pregnant Athlete
Benefits of regular exercise for the pregnant athlete include a reduced risk of gestational diabetes and hypertensive (high blood pressure) disorders in addition to less difficulty sleeping, less incidence of back pain, and less constipation — three common complaints during pregnancy. Finally, continued physical activity reduces excessive weight gain, meaning a faster return to your pre-pregnancy energy levels and body composition.
It’s no surprise that research shows that postpartum recovery time may be shortened overall and include a lower incidence of mood disorders for women who stay active during and after pregnancy. Most athletes find those benefits — feeling great and managing stress — are part of what keeps them training.
Benefits of Regular Exercise for the Baby
Science demonstrates that there are fetal benefits when Mom exercises. These include normal growth during pregnancy right into childhood, plus lower fetal heart rate and increased HRV which persisted after birth.
Babies of moms who continued to exercise also scored better on motor skills assessment and cognitive function tests and had an overall decreased risk of chronic disease. That means better overall health beyond birth and into childhood, a remarkable reason to keep moving!
How to Keep Moving When You’re Feeling Fatigued or Nauseous
OB doctors often tell patients — particularly in early pregnancy — to eat frequent, small meals to help maintain consistent blood glucose levels and to avoid GI distress. This is a lot like the advice given to athletes aiming to eat to perform.
If fatigue is heavy, consider breaking exercise into smaller, more frequent sessions spread throughout the day. Ten minutes of walking or running done four times might feel much better than gearing up for a 40-minute session. Also, remember that nausea and fatigue may dissipate after you’ve laced up and put in a warm-up, and that an increase in appetite and energy are your rewards for overcoming these challenges!
Simple Tips for Training During Pregnancy
- Remember that your body is made for this. Pregnancy is normal and healthy.
- Maintain regular hydration, fuel, and sleep. These are tried and true strategies for every athlete and continue to have great relevance during pregnancy. You want optimal performance every day.
- Remind yourself that exercise isn’t just for you — it has a big impact on your baby, too. Benefits can carry on into childhood.
- Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Break it up into chunks that are manageable.
- Remember that movement is exercise. If you’re a runner and the impact starts to bother your joints, switch it up. Hills are a great way to get your HR up and keep impact down. Hiking, with or without poles, or setting a treadmill to an incline and walking briskly can safely raise HR. Try swimming or pool running. See if your gym has low-impact cardio machines like ARC or elliptical trainers. Find a prenatal yoga class. Take a walk.
- Listen to your body. If something feels off, don’t push it. Talk to your doctor about any questions you have and share your concerns.
- Discuss your workout and fitness plans with your OB so you can tailor a plan that works best for you. Most activities are safe in pregnancy.
- Consider pelvic floor PT during pregnancy to maintain strength and prepare for delivery.
Pregnancy is a wondrous and exciting part of life. Embrace it! Enjoy the challenges and rewards of growing a new human, and keep moving. Your dedication will bring benefits for you and your baby long after birth.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2020, April). Physical Activity and Exercise During Pregnancy and the Postpartum Period. Retrieved from https://www.acog.org/clinical/clinical-guidance/committee-opinion/articles/2020/04/physical-activity-and-exercise-during-pregnancy-and-the-postpartum-period
Barakat, R. et al. (2016, May 01). Exercise during pregnancy protects against hypertension and macrosomia: randomized clinical trial. Retrieved from https://www.ajog.org/article/S0002-9378(15)02479-5/fulltext
May, L. E. et al. (2010, March 30). Aerobic exercise during pregnancy influences fetal cardiac autonomic control of heart rate and heart rate variability. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20356690/