Choosing to exercise during pregnancy is one of your best decisions, both for you and your baby. However, it is important to consult your doctor before beginning or continuing an exercise program. In most cases, your current level of activity will be acceptable and even encouraged. A moderate level of physical activity helps maintain cardiovascular, respiratory, and muscular fitness during pregnancy, while providing mental and emotional benefits. However, you may need to approach exercise differently when you are pregnant, especially at the different stages of pregnancy.
All women should engage in regular physical activity. For women who are not pregnant, exercise strengthens bones, builds muscle, provides a sense of enhanced energy, increases flexibility, and helps control weight. Exercise strengthens the heart and lowers cholesterol reducing the risk of heart disease. Many studies have found that women who exercise regularly and stay active feel better mentally; they are less stressed, depressed, or anxious.
The benefits of exercise during pregnancy appear to be even greater and exceed the risks in otherwise healthy pregnant women. The one possible exception is the elite or professional athlete, as well as individuals who participate in contact sports.
Women who begin exercise programs early in pregnancy also experience fewer problems later in pregnancy. Here is some of the evidence:
- Exercise leads to positive outcomes for both mother and baby due largely to the improvement in maternal cardiovascular capacity.
- Women who exercised regularly at or above 50% of their exercise level before pregnancy were much better off than those who stopped their regular exercise program before the end of the first trimester, according to a study of 131 well-conditioned recreational athletes. The women who continued to exercise were less likely to have cesarean deliveries or operative vaginal deliveries. Active labor was shorter. There was less evidence of acute fetal stress as signaled by the presence of either meconium-stained amniotic fluid (a sign the baby may not be getting enough oxygen), abnormal fetal heart rate patterns (indicating that the baby is stressed), or depressed Apgar scores (a quick way to assess the condition of the newborn at birth).
- A study suggests that exercise does not appear to increase premature labor. Mild-to-moderate exercisers experienced no increased risk for preterm delivery, and the relative risk of preterm birth in heavy exercisers was cut in half because of improved conditioning. Heavy exercisers also experienced shorter labor.
Below is a summary of the likely benefits of exercise during pregnancy:
- greatly reduced incidence of cesarean or operative vaginal delivery;
- shorter labor;
- less evidence of acute stress to the fetus;
- lower rate of miscarriage of normal fetus;
- reduced need for obstetric interventions, such as forceps- or vacuum-assisted vaginal deliveries;
- feeling better during pregnancy;
- decrease in perceived exertion during labor;
- reduction in the risk for back pain and back problems among women who exercise before and during pregnancy; and
- possible benefit to the baby-including leaner children and improved neurobehavioral development.