The simple dos and don’ts of exercising during and after pregnancy
By Lisa Salmon
It’s every mother’s instinct to protect her baby, and some believe taking it easy is part of that protection. But safe exercise can be good for mums and babies both during and after pregnancy.
The Government recommends pregnant women and new mums get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week and the NHS advises mums-to-be to keep up their normal physical activity or exercise for as long as they feel comfortable – unless advised otherwise due to their individual health.
As well as improving or maintaining fitness, exercise during and after pregnancy can help reduce blood pressure, improve sleep, help lower the risk of pregnancy diabetes and postnatal depression, strengthen tummy muscles after childbirth, and simply improve mood.
Of course, caution is necessary. Pregnant women are advised, for example, not to ‘bump the bump’ – and to be aware of the potential dangers of contact sports, high-impact sports and vigorous racquet sports where there could be a risk of abdominal trauma. And mums-to-be, who were not active before they got pregnant, should not suddenly take up strenuous exercise.
Similarly, while new mums who have had a straight-forward birth can usually start gentle exercise once they feel up to it, it’s normally advisable to wait until after the 6-week postnatal check to start any high-impact exercise, like aerobics or running. And those who have had a more complicated delivery or C-section will have a longer recovery time.
New mums can face a (small) obstacle too – working out how to look after their bundle of joy at the same time. One way of tackling that is to exercise while baby is in a carrier on mum’s chest, following the CARiFiT (carifit.co.uk) workout programme.
CARiFiT’s founder, Vern Hill, says exercising while babywearing helps create a bond between mums and babies, and explains: “Throughout a session they’re next to your heart, warm, safe, secure and engaged or, for the younger babies, asleep peacefully, while you’re enjoying the headspace of a satisfying and peaceful workout. It can help new mums find some special moments to really enjoy and create lasting memories.”
Other mums will choose to workout solo, while baby sleeps, watches them, or is cared for by someone else.
Charlie Barker, who specialises in pre-and postnatal fitness and is the founder of the health and fitness community for mums and mums-to-be Bumps & Burpees (bumpsandburpees.com), says: “Many women ask if it is safe to exercise during pregnancy, and the short answer is: yes, unless it is against medical advice.”
Here Barker, who’s a new mum herself and has just written the pregnancy and post-partum exercise guide Bumps & Burpees, outlines the dos and don’ts of exercising while pregnant and after childbirth.
Do listen to your body
Your body is your best guide to knowing what’s wrong and right for you. “Don’t worry about what your heart rate is compared to your friend, or what exercise programme they’re following,” she advises. “See what feels right for you and you’ll quickly build a picture of what works and what doesn’t work for your body.”
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself
In both pregnancy and motherhood, there are going to be plenty of days when you don’t feel up for exercising and that’s totally normal, says Barker. “You’re probably sleep-deprived, full of hormones and your body is doing an awful lot, so let yourself off the hook when you’d prefer to choose sofa over squats. Whether it’s morning sickness, exhaustion or just not feeling up to it, we all have those days and if you rest when your body needs it, you can feel ready to go next time.”
Do work on your strength
In pregnancy you’ll be getting heavier and changing shape over the nine months, not to mention welcoming lots of extra hormones.
“If you work on building and maintaining your physical strength,” says Barker, “your body will cope far better with the change in centre of gravity as your bump grows, the extra kilos it needs to carry around, and most importantly support joints as the ligaments surrounding them become slightly less elastic thanks to the hormone relaxin.”
She points out that once baby arrives, as it puts on weight you’ll get quite an arm workout carrying and lifting it. “Motherhood is one big workout and it needs your body to be strong to keep up with the pace,” she stresses.
Don’t push yourself too hard
“As much as I encourage women to continue to exercise throughout their pregnancy if they can, it’s important to remember the intensity might need to change depending on what you’re used to,” she says.
“No more training so hard that you collapse in a heap on the floor, bright red in the face and struggling to catch your breath – this is not the time for that.”
She advises pregnant women and very new mums to aim for a seven out of 10 effort level, making sure you can talk and breathe comfortably while you’re exercising.
New mums should build exercise back up slowly and steadily, and she warns: “Remember your body’s been through a lot, so don’t go jumping in at the deep end.”
Do what you enjoy
If you find a form of exercise you enjoy, you’re far more likely to keep it up, Barker points out. “Exercise shouldn’t feel like a chore you dread – take the time to find something that works for you,” she says. Whatever it is, make sure you ask for advice if you’re unsure it’s pregnancy-safe, she says.
Do try to be flexible
You have a very small new boss running your day now, so being more flexible is key, says Barker. “Spot your window of opportunity and exercise when it works for both you and the baby or bump. It’s a good skill to take into motherhood – to be able to plan for the unplannable.”
Do work on your pelvic floor
Working on pelvic floor strength is especially important during and after pregnancy, and Barker says: “Imagine your pelvic floor as a hammock that holds up all your organs and your growing baby, it makes complete sense that it might weaken under all that pressure, so remember to do your pelvic floor exercises.”
Don’t put your core under too much pressure
During pregnancy it’s important to maintain good core strength to help support your growing bump and stabilise you, explains Barker. But she says mothers-to-be need to swap traditional ab exercises, like planks and crunches, with exercises like Bird Dog or Side Plank Twist.
“There are plenty of ways to keep the core strong throughout your pregnancy without putting too much pressure through it,” she says.
Good pregnancy and post-partum core exercises include:
Start in a box position with your knees and hands at hip – and shoulder – width apart. Inhale as you lift opposite arm to opposite leg, creating a long straight line from fingertip to toe. Exhale and engage your core as you bring your hand in to touch your knee. Do all repetitions on the same side before switching. If you’re struggling with pelvic girdle pain or balance, keep your foot on the ground and slide it along the mat instead.
Side plank twist
Lay on your side with your forearm flat on the floor, bottom elbow lined up under the shoulder, both legs bent, with feet together, and then lift your hips off the floor. Raise your other arm and then bring it down and twist it under your body. If you notice any doming in your core, make sure you’re bending both knees, and exhaling to engage your core as you twist gently. Repeat on the other side.
Remember, always check with your own doctor and midwife if you have any concerns about your health and before making any big changes to your exercise routine.