Exercise During Pregnancy: Evidence-Based Fitness Tips For Busy Moms

Pregnant woman sitting on yoga mat with feet touching in a light blue tank top and black leggings.

Whether you’re a marathoner, a weekend warrior, or simply trying to get a minimum 30 minutes of daily physical activity, we’ve done a ton of research on the advantages of exercise during pregnancy for you, your baby, and maybe even your grandchildren (more about that later!).

Mothers who exercise during pregnancy are at lower risk for gestational diabetes, having bigger than average babies, and even cesarean birth. And that’s just scratching the surface! The benefits of exercise during pregnancy are undeniable.

Today we’re covering all things exercise during pregnancy, so you can find a safe and effective workout for this short but special season of life. We also talk with the pregnancy wellness experts Devoted Mamas and share a few of Undefining Motherhood’s favorite online resources for prenatal fitness. 

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What Are The Benefits Of Exercise During Pregnancy?

Physical activity during pregnancy protects against some of the most critical pregnancy and postpartum complications including gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) and preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy). 

Previous studies suggest getting 150-180 minutes of moderate exercise each week lowers the odds of having GDM by up to 90%. Exercise even reduces both the risk and intensity of postpartum depression symptoms. Incredible! 

Exercise is important even if you’re carrying around some extra pounds. A higher pre-pregnancy weight puts mothers at risk for certain complications, including: 

  • birth defects 
  • gestational diabetes 
  • preeclampsia 
  • restricted fetal growth 

and other scary-sounding health problems. Like you need something else to stress about!

Fortunately, regular exercise in all three trimesters improves both pregnancy and birth outcomes in women who are overweight or obese at the start of their pregnancy. It also supports healthy weight gain

Don’t let your previous lack of exercise experience or body size stop you from enjoying the benefits of prenatal exercise!

Is It Safe To Exercise While Pregnant?

5 pregnant women in different frames doing different types of exercise

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states exercise is safe for pregnant women experiencing a normal, healthy pregnancy. 

For complicated pregnancies including placenta previa, consult your OB-GYN or midwife before starting or continuing exercise. They’ll work with you to determine what activities are safe for you and your baby.

If you experience bleeding, dizziness, chest pain, swelling or other warning signs while active, stop exercising until you’ve talked to your healthcare provider. Pregnancy is not the time to push through pain or discomfort!

What Exercises Should I Avoid?

During exercise, pregnant mamas need to take steps to avoid overheating, dehydration, and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Think lots of water, snacks, and rest breaks!  

In addition, limit your workouts to a moderate intensity and never exercise to the point of breathlessness. Try the “talk test” to find a level of intensity that works for you–basically, work out at a level that allows you to talk, but not sing. 

Due to the pregnancy hormones relaxin and progesterone, your muscles, joints, and ligaments become less rigid and more flexible. While this process helps prepare your body for birth, it also puts you at higher risk for falls, back pain, and muscle injury. 

Avoid activities or contact sports where falls or injuries are common such as: 

  • cycling outdoors 
  • gymnastics 
  • downhill skiing 
  • water skiing 
  • horseback riding 
  • ice hockey
  • surfing 
  • soccer
  • basketball 

Due to their impact on blood oxygen levels, doctors also recommend eliminating all activities in low oxygen environments (scuba diving, high altitude hiking, etc.) during pregnancy.

What Kind of Exercise Is Best During Pregnancy?

Nicole and Kendra of Devoted Mamas, are experts in the field of pre- and postnatal fitness and wellness. (You may recognize them from Undefining Motherhood’s Expecting and Organized Virtual Summit.)

They help women stay active during their pregnancies by combining prenatal corrective exercise with yoga. Corrective exercise is moving in a way that alleviates muscle imbalances caused by habitual movement patterns and even injuries, including birth trauma.

Kendra believes prenatal yoga is a fantastic place to start as it “helps calm the nervous system, gets [pregnant moms] feeling good…Yoga is really amazing for helping build connection between the breath and the body.” 

She says prenatal yoga can get moms out of their own heads and connect them with their more primitive “body brain,” which is the part of the brain that kicks in during labor and birth.

What’s The Easiest And Most Affordable Exercise Option For Pregnancy?

According to the Devoted Mamas, walking is by far the easiest and most affordable exercise out there. They assert that “with walking, you have the opportunity to practice good body mechanics and posture, deep breathing, core activation, and glute and leg strength building.” 

They added that walking produces tons of endorphins, the feel-good hormone that helps with childbirth pain, and is safe for every trimester and even during labor! It’s free and accessible. No course or teacher required.

Walking is also the #1 exercise recommended by my midwives at our local birth center. In a brisk walk with long strides, your pelvis cycles through different planes of movement, each critical for creating space in your pelvis as the baby descends during early labor and birth

What Other Exercises Can You Do During Pregnancy?

For general physical activity Kendra and Nicole suggest strength training, particularly weight lifting, swimming, and if you’re feeling up for it, even running!

Nicole says “If we have runners out there who want to continue running, you can keep running during pregnancy.” She says running comfortably during pregnancy depends on your body, your running form, and how you’re growing your baby. While some women run into their third trimester, it is important to stay connected to your body and its changing shape to avoid injury.

Should I Do Any Exercise In Early Pregnancy? 

Moderate exercise is safe and doesn’t increase your risk for miscarriage if you’re having a normal pregnancy. With that said, it’s important to not go all out, especially if you weren’t exercising before you got pregnant. Easing into a new rhythm takes time. It’s totally fine to take this opportunity to rest and maybe dip your toes into some of the exercises we’ve discussed above.

With that said, most pregnant mamas are intensely aware of the risk of miscarriage in their first trimester, especially if this pregnancy is a rainbow baby. Doing anything even remotely like exercise when you’re experiencing pregnancy after miscarriage may feel outright dangerous at times. Feeling nervous is totally normal–.

For other pregnant folks, it’s difficult to say goodbye to the exercise routines that kept them mentally and emotionally healthy. They may be unsure of how they’ll cope with stress without their favorite hot yoga or hot pilates class every week. Fortunately, there’s lots of great alternative exercise options out there.

If you’re motivated to start moderate exercise or continue exercising in early pregnancy, don’t forget to replenish fluid lost from morning sickness. ACOG recommends drinking between 8 and 12 cups of water daily while pregnant. 

What About Exercise In Pregnancy Second Trimester And Third Trimester?

Most people consider the second trimester the easiest and most comfortable period of pregnancy for physical activity. The fatigue and nausea common during the first trimester subsides, your energy levels increase, and your bump is not quite large enough to impede your movement.

Supine exercises, or exercises done lying on your back, are not recommended after 20 weeks  as the weight of your growing uterus presses down on your body’s largest vein, the inferior vena cava, which carries blood to the heart to be re-oxygenated. 

In your third trimester, as your belly expands, your center of gravity inches upward and toward the front of your body. Your pelvic floor muscles are also working overtime to support the increasing weight of your uterus. Safely moving a body that’s constantly changing is a challenge. Many people find they need to dramatically decrease or even eliminate certain activities during this time. 

Continue to drink plenty of water and make modifications to your exercise routine as needed to ensure your workouts feel comfortable and safe.

If I’m Already Having A Healthy, Uncomplicated Pregnancy, Do I Still Need To Exercise? 

Yes! During my conversation with the Devoted Mamas, they shared a fascinating new Harvard Medical School study highlighting the sweeping benefits of prenatal exercise observed over several generations.

Using an animal model, researchers discovered that when grandmothers exercised and ate a nutritionally complete diet, their grandchildren had higher bone density, better glucose tolerance over time, and lower body weights. 

In fact, the impact of their grandmother’s diet and exercise was so profound, positive changes were seen in children even if their mother did not share the same healthy habits. Wild!

The exercise you do now, mama, not only benefits your baby but future generations of babies as well. Time to start calling yourself “The Matriarch.”

Our Favorite Resources for Safe, Supportive Exercise During Pregnancy (And Beyond)

We love the flexibility of online fitness programs, and research shows they’re a great way to connect with other mothers when in-person options aren’t available. Here are a handful of our favorite prenatal fitness programs for safe, effective workouts in the comfort of your own home.

  1. Devoted Mamas

The Expecting to Flourish program from Devoted Mamas keeps your fitness goals on track through the ups and downs of pregnancy. Try their pelvic floor + core strength quiz for suggestions on next steps in your fitness journey, and grab their free prenatal podcast listening guide full of helpful information to enjoy a strong, energetic pregnancy. It’s definitely going into my regular podcast rotation!

  1. Fitness Interrupted

Fitness Interrupted is another alumni of the Expecting and Organized Virtual Summit. They’re a two mama team focused on putting the “work” back into prenatal and postpartum workouts. They offer individualized private training plans as well as both 8 and 12-week online programs. I’m excited to try their FREE 1 week Core + Restore program during my postpartum recovery.

  1. MamasteFit

Featured on the Evidence-Based Birth podcast, two sisters and birth workers created MamasteFit to help moms exercise effectively without pain and discomfort. They operate a gym for pregnant athletes in Aberdeen, NC and carry that experience into their online courses and fitness programs. I’m currently eyeballing their postpartum return to running program!

  1. Stirrups To SitUps

Stirrups to SitUps is an app created by two pelvic floor health specialists. Their daily workouts “bridge the gap” between the end of pregnancy/postpartum and a safe, healing fitness routine. These are not your run of the mill pelvic exercises for pregnancy (looking at you kegels) but a series of evidence-based, targeted movements. The best part? These 20-minute exercises fit into the busiest schedule.

Stay Safe And Stay Strong In Pregnancy With Expert Advice 

Exercise during pregnancy benefits mothers, babies, and even future generations. Plus, there are so many safe and effective ways to squeeze in those 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity exercise each week throughout pregnancy. 

Whether it’s a walk around the block or a sweaty weight-lifting session at the gym, there’s an exercise or workout program to challenge and support you as you grow your little one. Let’s get moving!

Are you planning to exercise during pregnancy? Tell us about your favorite prenatal workouts for staying strong while staying safe!

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