Pregnancy is an incredible journey filled with excitement, a touch of nerves, and lots of questions. One common question many parents-to-be have is how to stay healthy and active during and after pregnancy.
Whether you're an avid gym-goer wondering how to tweak your routine or have just given birth and want to get back into shape, we've got you covered.
We'll discuss everything from the benefits of exercise during pregnancy to postpartum exercise tips, with advice from bloggers Mirka Moore and Erica Hughes, who create fitness content for mums. We'll also answer commonly asked questions like how often you should exercise during pregnancy and the best foods to eat and avoid.
- Is it safe to exercise when pregnant?
- What are the benefits of exercise when pregnant?
- How often should I exercise during pregnancy?
- Exercise tips during pregnancy
- Postpartum exercise tips
- When can I start postpartum exercise?
- How to eat a balanced diet during pregnancy
Is it safe to exercise when pregnant?
Many people abandon their exercise routine when they discover they're pregnant, as some worry that exercise may harm the baby. But staying clear of any physical activity may actually do you more harm than good.
Staying fit during pregnancy can boost your stamina and endurance, which can really come in handy when it's time for the physically demanding process of labour and delivery. That's why it's best to keep up your regular daily exercises, like walking, swimming, yoga, and even lifting weights, for as long as you feel comfortable.
Remember, every pregnancy is different and you may have to adjust your fitness routine based on how many months along you are. That's why it's important to check with your doctor or midwife about what exercises are best for you.
What are the benefits of exercise when pregnant?
The NHS advises that women who are active during early pregnancy are less likely to experience problems in later pregnancy and labour, so it really shouldn’t be ignored.
Here are some benefits of exercise during pregnancy:
- Reduces discomfort — The added weight of the baby and the expanding uterus during pregnancy can put extra pressure on your muscles, joints, and ligaments. When you strengthen your muscles through exercise, they provide better support to the affected areas, helping to alleviate the strain on your body. Plus, working on your core muscles can help you keep a good posture, and that can mean less back pain.
- Prepares you for recovery — Staying active during pregnancy not only benefits you now but also sets the stage for a smoother recovery after giving birth. When you're in good shape, your body is better equipped to heal and regain strength postpartum. This can mean quicker healing for any tissues that might have been stretched or strained during pregnancy and childbirth.
- Improves sleep — According to the NHS, it's common for women to feel exhausted during pregnancy, especially in the first 12 weeks. In fact, one study found more than half of women reported difficulty sleeping during pregnancy. Staying active can be a game-changer in helping your body relax, increasing the chances of you experiencing better quality sleep. And this can play a crucial role in reducing stress and fatigue.
- Boosts your mood — When you exercise, your body releases feel-good chemicals like endorphins and dopamine that make you feel happier and more relaxed. And this can be really helpful in managing the emotional ups and downs that often come with pregnancy due to hormonal changes.
How often should I exercise during pregnancy?
You could do 30-minute fitness classes five days a week or split it into smaller 10-minute workouts throughout each day. But don't worry if you can't reach the full 150 minutes — any exercise is better than nothing!
Exercise tips during pregnancy
1. Tweak your exercise routine
While the NHS advises that you can continue with your usual exercise routine for as long as you feel comfortable, you should do so in moderation.
If your normal regime consists of a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout, it's a good idea to consider some changes while pregnant. HIIT workouts involve rapid and intense bursts of exercise, which can elevate your heart rate significantly and place more stress on your body.
During pregnancy, it's important to avoid activities that might make you push too hard or overheat, as this could affect both you and your baby by putting unnecessary strain on your body.
Instead, you might want to try gentler activities like jogging or swimming. They still help you stay fit but come with less risk compared to high-intensity exercises.
As a general rule, you should be able to hold a conversation as you exercise. If you become too breathless as you talk, slow the pace down. Remember that exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous to be beneficial; going for a gentle swim a few times a week will still do you both a lot of good!
2. Avoid lying on your back
You should avoid lying flat on your back after the first trimester of pregnancy, as the position can put too much pressure on a large vein in your back called the vena cava. It may reduce blood flow to your heart and brain and can cause you to feel dizzy and nauseous. That's why it's best to steer clear of exercises like sit-ups and crunches.
Instead, opt for exercises that keep you on your feet, like brisk walking, stationary cycling, and light-weight lifting.
3. Wear loose clothing
You don’t want to feel trapped or constricted while you exercise, as it will make you feel uncomfortable and could raise your body temperature to a dangerously high level. Ditch the tight lycra and opt for a loose and natural material like light cotton to feel more comfortable and free.
4. Stay hydrated
Pregnancy increases your need for hydration, especially during exercise, as your body works harder to support you and your growing baby.
Dehydration can lead to discomfort and fatigue, so drink plenty of water before your session and keep a water bottle handy so you can take regular sips while you exercise.
Learn more about staying hydrated before, during and after your workout with our guide.
Postpartum exercise tips
Entering the postpartum phase brings a mix of excitement and adjustments for new mums. Amid the whirlwind of caring for your baby, it's important to carve out time for your own well-being.
Mirka says, "having family around means it's not always easy to keep to your fitness routines, but it's not impossible!"
Here are some tips for staying active after pregnancy:
1. Choose activities you can do with your baby
Involving your baby in your exercise routine can be a rewarding bonding experience.
"When my son was small, I used to look for activities I could do with him. For four years, I did Buggyfit with him, which was a great exercise, especially as he got bigger and heavier. I was very lucky that he would still put up with being pushed around in the pushchair that long. Pushing a pushchair around can definitely improve your fitness, and if you walk as much as possible, it will all help," says Erica.
And Mirka agrees: "One option is buggy-running. That way, you still can go for your run, plus your little one can get some fresh air or maybe have a nap. I strongly advise you to get a proper buggy for running. It makes so much difference.
2. Work around your kids’ routine
Squeezing in exercise around your children's schedule requires creativity and adaptability. Finding moments when they're occupied or asleep can be ideal for quick workouts or stretching sessions!
"Fitting in an organised class in the evening or the weekend might be possible if there is someone around to take on the childcare duties," says Erica. "I found exercise easier to fit in when my son started school. I've found a couple of yoga classes that run during the school day, and I've found them so beneficial."
Maria adds: "Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I put my running outfit on when doing the school run and go buggy-running straight after dropping my older one at school."
When can I start postpartum exercise?
The timing for getting back into postpartum exercise isn't the same for everyone. If you had a straightforward birth with no complications, you can begin exercising whenever you feel up to it. Just ensure it's light activities like walking, gentle yoga and stretching.
According to the NHS, before you start any high-impact exercise like running, it's a good idea to wait around six weeks after giving birth. And a bit longer after a C-section. This gives your body time to heal and rebuild strength.
It's always wise to seek advice from your doctor before resuming any exercise routine, as they can provide personalised guidance based on your unique situation.
How to eat a balanced diet during pregnancy
As well as staying active, focusing on nutrition during pregnancy is key to the healthy growth and development of your baby. This is even more important if you're working out while pregnant; you'll want to be fueling your body right!
There are some important changes that you need to be aware of when you’re expecting, including foods that you should be eating more of and others that you should be avoiding completely!
Best foods to eat during pregnancy
- Green leafy vegetables — Vegetables like spinach, kale, cabbage, spring greens, broccoli, and peas are packed with folic acid, a B vitamin crucial for reducing the risk of neural tube defects in a developing baby. The NHS advises also taking a 400mcg folic acid supplement every day before you're pregnant, right up until week 12.
- Dairy products — Dairy products like yoghurt and milk are rich in mineral calcium. And your body needs double the amount of calcium during pregnancy, particularly during the last 10 weeks when the baby’s bones are strengthening.
You don’t need to eat additional calcium as your body will absorb more from the foods you eat, but you do need to make sure you’re eating enough in the first place. According to the NHS, adults need around 700mg of calcium daily. Milk, cheese, tofu, and soya drinks with added calcium are all great options.
- Chicken and eggs — Chicken and eggs are both excellent sources of iron. Iron is important in making red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. Having low levels of iron can lead to iron deficiency anaemia, which, in pregnancy, increases the risk of having a low birth weight baby and a premature delivery.
Other good sources of iron include red meat (once a week), fish, plant sources like dried apricots, green leafy veggies, beans and lentils.
- Oily fish — Oily fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel are rich sources of essential omega-3 fats, crucial for heart health and developing a baby's nervous system during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The NHS recommends two fish servings per week, one oily. This is because some types of fish contain high levels of mercury, and too much isn't good for your baby's developing nervous system.
Plant-based sources of omega-3s include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp.
- Lean meats and legumes — Protein sources like lean meats, fish, beans, lentils and nuts support tissue growth and development for both you and your baby. It's essential for the formation of new cells and repairing tissue.
A high-protein diet can also boost your energy levels and fuel your workouts during pregnancy!
Foods to limit or avoid during pregnancy
- Raw or partially cooked eggs — Avoid eating raw or partially cooked eggs in foods such as mousse, mayonnaise and soufflés, as there is a risk of salmonella. This is a type of bacteria that causes sickness. If the eggs have been produced under the British Lion Code of Practice (or equivalent standards), then the risk is very low, as they come from vaccinated flocks.
- Soft cheeses — Mould-ripened soft cheeses like brie and camembert, blue-veined cheeses like Roquefort, and Danish blue and gorgonzola should be avoided or only eaten if cooked. These cheeses might contain bacteria called listeria which can lead to a stomach infection called listeriosis.
The reduced acidity in soft cheeses and increased moisture create the ideal environment for harmful bacteria.
- Uncooked meats — Meat and poultry need to be thoroughly cooked through so that it's steaming hot and there is no pink or red blood. This is due to the potential risk of an infection called toxoplasmosis. Although rare, if a pregnant person gets infected, the toxoplasmosis bacteria can potentially harm their developing baby, so it's not worth the risk.
- Certain types of fish — You should avoid eating fish high up the food chain, like shark, swordfish and marlin. They contain high levels of mercury, which can affect the baby’s development.
When it comes to shellfish, ensure it is cooked rather than raw, as it may contain harmful bacteria or viruses that can cause food poisoning.
Stay healthy and active during pregnancy with Fitness First
At Fitness First, we have a wide range of fitness classes for pregnant women. Explore gentle mind and body classes like Yoga and Mediation or cardio classes like Aqua to get your body moving without putting strain on your joints.
Our team of expert trainers can also help you reach your fitness goals with personal training.