Does it make sense to stop or to start an exercise program during pregnancy?
While many women believe that they need to rest during pregnancy, other expectant moms swear by their exercise regime, as they feel it eases childbirth and helps them bounce back to a normal dress size after giving birth.
Who is right and who is wrong? And what are the implications of exercising -- or staying sedentary -- when you are pregnant?
Before we launch into considerations of an exercise program, there are few considerations about pregnancy that need to be understood.
During pregnancy, the female goes through hormonal changes that increase the levels of the hormones relaxin, elastin, estrogen and progesterone in their bodies. These hormones soften the connective tissue surrounding the joints, which is necessary to allow the female pelvic joint to expand to accommodate the baby as it passes through the pelvic inlet during birth. Yet, the weight-bearing joints such as the knees, ankles and hips are affected, too.
Additionally, the blood volume in a woman's body increases by as much as 30 percent to 50 percent. Because of this, the heart rate and cardiac output are elevated at rest. The resting heart rate may be elevated as much as 15 beats per minute during pregnancy.
As pregnancy progresses, the uterus increases in size and weight and therefore pulls the pelvis into a forward tilt, causing stress on the lumbar sacral ligament and lower back muscles. The abdominal muscles tend to stretch and weaken, while the lower back muscles tend to shorten, resulting in a sway back -- or lordotic -- posture.
The weight of the growing breasts tends to pull the shoulders into a forward position, resulting in a slouched posture of the upper back. The chest muscles shorten, while the upper back muscles stretch and weaken.
As the uterus grows, it stretches the abdominal muscles. This lengthening process causes the body to add functional units called sarcomeres to muscles, making them progressively longer. When combined with the action of the aforementioned hormones, this process relaxes the muscles throughout the pelvic girdle, all of which are important units for your core. Keep in mind that a long muscle is a weak muscle and a short muscle is a strong muscle.
All of these changes in the female body during pregnancy are important and play roles for the baby's arrival.
In the past, it was believed that exercise would harm a developing baby and that as much rest as possible was required for the fetus to grow. That might be still true depending on your age, health and physical condition; as women become pregnant in older age, pregnancies may be more difficult than for women who are younger.
However, for many women it has been shown that exercise during pregnancy can enhance energy levels, self-esteem and mood, while at the same time reducing some of the physical discomforts of pregnancy. A speedier recovery after delivery and a quicker return to the pre-pregnant state have also been documented. And studies have shown that the IQ of children from women who are active during pregnancy tend to be higher then those of children of nonactive women.
It is also important to remember that pregnant women may have the tendency to overindulge in foods because of food cravings caused by hormonal changes. This can cause fat tissue gain, which can be controlled through exercise.