Pregnancy and Exercise: Myths and Truths

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There are many long standing myths out there regarding pregnancy and exercise. Sadly, many old school OBGYNs are not up to date on how moms-to-be can safely and effectively exercise. It is important that you know there is a ton of excellent recent research out there to support exercise during pregnancy – even if you are an exercise newbie! This is such great news. We have learned so much in the last decade about the amazing benefits of exercise during pregnancy – in terms of how it allows you to stay healthier during pregnancy AND how it allows you to give your child the healthiest start in life possible. In fact, by exercising regularly during pregnancy, you are minimizing many health risks for your little guy/gal.

Here are some of the longest standing prenatal fitness myths DEBUNKED.

MYTH #1: Walking and stretching are the best exercise when pregnant.
TRUTH: Walking and stretching are certainly not bad for you. However, maintaining a more rigorous fitness program is certainly acceptable and in most cases more beneficial. If you have complications, walking and stretching may be a great way for you to continue to exercise. Your doctor can tell you if this is best for you. However, in a traditional low risk pregnancy you can keep up a higher level of intensity. Sure, there may be days where you just don’t have it in you to push and walking is best. As you get into your third trimester and you are increasingly uncomfortable, you may find walking to be the best form of exercise for you.

However, if you are cruising along in your pregnancy without complications, regular interval training and strength training sessions are going to give you far greater bang for your buck than a walking program. Interval training as a means of cardio exercise will minimize your exercise time. 20-30 minutes of intervals gives you more benefits than an hour of walking. Strength training will allow you to maintain your muscle mass throughout pregnancy which will help you with losing weight post baby. Additionally, strength training will help prevent back tension/injury and keep your core as strong as possible, assisting in your post baby recovery.

MYTH #2: If you weren’t exercising before pregnancy, your should not start while pregnant.
TRUTH: You can absolutely begin an exercise program while pregnant, even if you were not exercising before pregnancy. Just be sure your doctor is ok with it. From there, proceed with reason. Start with short sessions, 10-20 minutes and build up to 30-40 minutes. If you’re training smart (using intervals and strength training), you really do not need to exercise longer than that unless you enjoy longer walks, etc.

If you are strength training for the first time while pregnant, be sure you are using proper form. Because of increased levels of relaxin, your joints are looser than you are used to. You want to be sure to keep your movements within appropriate range of motion, so you do not pull a muscle or strain any connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, etc.) Always start with a weight you know you can manage on your own and build from there.

MYTH #3: You should not allow your heartrate to get over 140 beats per minute (bpm) when exercising while pregnant.
TRUTH: Without boring you with a ton of science and old wive’s tales, I will tell you that this myth aggravates me more than any other. This 140 bpm that many healthcare professionals throw around is a totally arbitrary number. It has no basis in science. It is based on an old wive’s tale that everyone has the same maximun heartrate (HR) at birth and from there we can calculate appropriate levels of exertion for everyone when it comes to exercise. This is simply untrue. Everyone has a genetically predetermined maximum heartrate. That means my max HR may be 195 bpm and yours may be 210 bpm – it is just what we were born with. Therefore, when I am exercising at 140 bpm it is going to feel much harder than when you are exercising at 140 bpm because it is closer to my max HR. Also, if you are in much better shape than me, your anaerobic threshold will be higher, allowing you to exercise at a higher rate without going anaerobic (without oxygen), so 140 bpm would feel much easier to you than it would to me. This is a silly (read: stupid) way to assess a safe exercise threshold for pregnant women.

It is much more safe and effective to use a Rating or Perceived Exertion (RPE). I have clients use a scale of 1-10. 1 being so easy you could go forever, 10 being so challenging you could only maintain the intensity for a few (5-10) seconds. When pregnant you don’t want to go higher than a 7-8, depending on your comfort with exercise and exertion prior to becoming pregnant. If you are a runner who races regularly before getting pregnant, exercising upto an 8 on a scale of 1-10, is a place your body knows and is comfortable with. If you are newer to exercise a 7 is a safer place for your body. The main thing here is that you don’t want to overwhelm your systems and overheat. As long as you are reading your body well, exercising in a well ventilated space and staying well hydrated that 7-8 RPE is a safe place for you and your babe.

MYTH #4: Abdominal exercises are not safe while pregnant.
TRUTH: Having a strong core is absolutely essential during pregnancy AND after pregnancy. Your core muscles will be stretched beyond their limits by the end of your pregnancy and whatever strength you have built up to this point will help those muscles bounce back after pregnancy. Also, the core strength you build and maintain during pregnancy is very important in protecting your back, as your belly grows, and after birth, when your back is at high risk for injury. Clearly, core work should be an integral part of any prenatal fitness program.

That said, you do not want to be doing crunches (which are a waste of time in any exercise program) and sit ups after 20 weeks. Because you cannot perform exercises on your back after 20 weeks you will need to find alternatives for laying down abdominal exercises. No problem, though. The most effective abdominal exercises are planks and all the wonderful variations, pelvic tilts (which can be done on a ball or seated after 20 weeks) and isometric abdominal holds/zippers. You can and SHOULD do these exercises until the end of your pregnancy to keep your core working.

Be sure that when performing any exercises, including core exercises, you are always PULLING IN your belly rather than PUSHING OUT. As you get further along in pregnancy, this will become more challenging. Stop any exercise that causes you to push out your belly with exertion, as this will increase your likelihood of diastasis recti (the split down the center of the abdominal wall.) Also, take out twisting ab exercises later in pregnancy to minimize DR.

MYTH #5: Pregnancy means eating for two.
TRUTH: You may hate me for this, but you’ll thank me later, promise. Eating for two does NOT mean doubling your food consumption and/or eating whatever you want for 10 months. I have worked with so many moms who have done just that and they are filled with regret and frustration after giving birth. They struggle for much longer to lose their baby weight. It is a very challenging battle. Yes, you do need to increase your caloric intake to fuel your body to grow another human being, there is no denying that! However, you only need to add about 300-500 additional calories a day. That is an additional snack or a small meal, not a shake and a large fry every afternoon – not even a Starbucks cider and scone (600-700 calories.) Be aware of how quickly calories add up. One of the most helpful things you can do to keep your blood sugar even keeled (to ward off hunger AND crazy cravings) is to really keep up your protein intake. This will allow you to make rational and intelligent food choices throughout the day. A starving pregnant woman is typically in no place to make an informed food decision. So do not let yourself get to that ravenous (delirious?) place.

Now that you have your facts straight regarding pregnancy and exercise, get that fitness schedule dialed in. Try to get in 3-5 workouts a week, preferably 3 strength sessions and 2 interval sessions. Here is a video that shows you some of the best strength exercises to do during pregnancy:



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