Should You Work Out While Pregnant?

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.

Should You Exercise?

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.

With this in mind, the instructions from a personal trainer can have positive influences on a pregnant woman's psychological, as well as physical, preparation for childbirth. Yet it is important to keep a realistic perspective on the role that exercise will have.

And of course, before any exercise program during pregnancy, any woman should check in with her doctor to receive an OK to start, to continue or to stop their program -- all of which depends on age, health and overall physical condition and injuries.

How to Exercise During Pregnancy?

Common sense is the best approach while pregnant during exercise. Here are some general guidelines to consider for an exercise program:

It would be wise to start exercising even before your pregnancy in order to establish baseline levels with which you can work once you do get pregnant. It would be best to work with a heart rate monitor to find out your maximum heart rate, your resting heart rate and your heart rate recovery time for purposes of comparison and tracking your progress. Keep in mind that your resting heart rate increases during pregnancy. Also, women who exercise and then become pregnant are used to the feeling of intense workouts versus women who have never exercised. Already pregnant? Pay attention to your body when you work out; exercising just to the point of being a bit out of breath or having a flushed complexion will tell you that you are working at a good indication of intensity.

To prevent back pain from a slouching posture, you should strengthen the muscles in the upper back. This can be done fairly simply with an exercise rubber band. You can exercise from a sitting position, legs straight out in front of you, by placing the band around your feet and pulling it toward the body in a rowing motion.

As the abdominals relax and lengthen, simple strategies should be implemented to strengthen the abdominal groups, such as the transverse abdominals and rectus abdominis, as these are key muscle groups when it comes to pushing the child through the birth canal. These exercises can include activities as simple as pulling the navel button toward the spine.

To strengthen the pelvic floor, women should perform contractions of the pelvic floor known as Kegel exercises, or simply as "kegels." Because the rectus abdominis, transverses abdominals and pelvic girdle belong to the core, which is necessary to give stability in any movement, balance work should also be done moderately, within levels of comfort.

As with any exercise program, the shape an individual is in should be the determining factor of how long and hard they should be exercising. Just recently, the New York City Marathon was won by a woman who trained during pregnancy. Of course, this is a healthy individual who was used to long distance running and high intensity cardiovascular training.

U.S. health officials recommend that individuals exercise for 2.5 hours per week (roughly 30 minutes per day, at least five days a week) to stay healthy and manage weight. This general rule is applicable to pregnant individuals as well.

Optimum fitness levels during pregnancy are beneficial to both mothers and their unborn infants. This is not a good time to pursue maximum fitness goals, but rather to focus on maintaining a good fitness level. Women should make sure to have a physician's approval for exercise during pregnancy and until three months after delivery.

Again, take the common sense approach. If you are active and healthy and regularly work out, it is probably best to continue your program with some adjustments. For those who do not, it might be a great time to start strengthening your body to prepare for birth -- and help you bounce back after birth to your pre-pregnancy dress size.

Stefan Aschan is a leading expert on lifestyle, health and fitness who has helped more than 30,000 people get fit through advice on nutrition, fitness and lifestyle changes. For your free must read "updates and solution" newsletter on how to have 10 times more success, stay on top of your goals and accomplish the change of body and appearance," visit