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Pregnancy exercise can reduce tiredness, back pain and weight gain, as well as the risk of unplanned caesarean and gestational diabetes. For babies, exercise during pregnancy can improve a baby’s heart rate health, birth weight and brain maturity, so it’s important to encourage mothers to stay active1-3.
For both mother and baby, there are a multitude of benefits to exercising during pregnancy:
There are a number of activities designed specifically for expectant mums, like pregnancy yoga. But if the mother loves to run, swim or go to the gym, they should be able, and encouraged, to continue their usual routine with a few modifications. Some days the mother may feel more energetic than others, so they should always be told to take things at their own pace.
Healthcare professionals should encourage expectant mothers to do the following exercises:
The pelvic floor plays a particularly important role during pregnancy and labour22,23. Initially, it supports the weight of the growing baby. Later on, when labour begins, the pelvic floor helps to rotate the baby’s head into the ideal position, ready for birth. As the womb contracts to push the baby down, the gentle resistance from the flexible pelvic floor below encourages the baby’s chin to tuck and their head to turn. Once in this position, it is easier for the baby’s head to pass under the pubic bone, ready for crowning24.
A new mother’s pelvic floor may be understandably weaker after birth. Around 40 percent of women who have given birth experience ‘stress incontinence’ – leaking urine when they sneeze or cough25. Mothers can experience stress incontinence regardless of delivery method, and it is thought to be mostly a consequence of being pregnant in general26. However, pregnant women undertaking pelvic floor muscle training have been found to have a lower incidence of urinary incontinence27 after birth.
With regular, simple exercises, the pelvic floor muscles can be strengthened in order to reduce the likelihood of certain problems later on28. The most effective way to improve the strength and stamina of pelvic floor muscles is to encourage expectant mothers to combine both short and long squeezes.
Here are a few simple exercises to help strengthen a pregnant woman’s pelvic floor:
Perhaps the simplest change expectant mothers have to make is avoiding lying flat on their backs for long periods of time, especially after 16 weeks. The weight of the bump pressing on certain blood vessels can reduce cardiac output29, cause dizziness and affect the flow of blood that carries nutrients and oxygen to the baby. Instead, expectant mothers should be advised to lie on their sides.
While this means traditional stomach crunches should be avoided during exercise, core and pelvic floor strengthening exercises should still be included in their exercise routines. One way to work the core is for the mother to get onto all fours and make a box shape, with hands under the shoulders, knees under the hips, and a straight back. The stomach muscles should be pulled in, and the back arched towards the ceiling like a cat. This should be held for a few seconds, return to neutral, then repeat30.
In the past, experts have recommended that a pregnant woman’s heart rate should not exceed 140 bpm, but understanding of fitness has since progressed. An increase in resting heart rate (by approximately 10 bpm) is a normal physiological consequence of pregnancy31. Just like fitness levels, heart rates vary between individuals, so keeping the heart rate below a specific value is not appropriate. The best rule is for expectant mothers to exercise at a moderate intensity, in such a way that they are able to hold a conversation throughout.
Specific recommendations regarding body temperature during pregnancy are sparse; however, experts agree that expectant mothers should avoid undertaking activities that will raise their core temperature by more than 2°C – or above 38.9°C32. This is because such a temperature change may result in hyperthermia (the opposite of hypothermia). Hyperthermia during pregnancy has been linked to a twofold increase in the risk of birth defects impacting the spine or brain. As such it is not advisable to use hot tubs or spas during pregnancy, and hot yoga should be avoided33.
However, moderate exercise – whether it’s running, swimming or regular yoga – should not raise the core temperature above these levels and should therefore be actively encouraged by healthcare professionals.
Although not all of the following activities have been directly linked to harming the baby during pregnancy, certain activities may put expectant mothers in a position where falls or knocks to the unborn baby are more likely. Healthcare professionals should inform pregnant mothers that the following exercises should be avoided34:
IMPORTANT NOTICE: Breastfeeding is best for babies. Infant formula is suitable from birth when babies are not breastfed. Follow-on milk is only for babies over 6 months, as part of a mixed diet and should not be used as a breastmilk substitute before 6 months. We advise that all formula milks including the decision to start weaning should be made on the advice of a doctor, midwife, health visitor, public health nurse, dietitian, pharmacist or other professional responsible for maternal and child care. Foods for special medical purposes should only be used under medical supervision. May be suitable for use as the sole source of nutrition for infants from birth, and/or as part of a balanced diet from 6–12 months. Refer to label for details.