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Can you exercise when you are pregnant?

Working out during pregnancy can be a rewarding activity as long as you approach it with self-compassion and check in with your doctor

Exercise during pregnancy has many undeniable benefits
Exercise during pregnancy has many undeniable benefits (Pexels)

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A friend of mine recently let me in on a wonderful secret: She's pregnant. To say the news was exciting is calling a Picasso painting simply "nice ."Our conversations are filled with bubbling excitement and peppered with questions regarding her well-being (which she is undoubtedly sick of). While our excitement remains at a fever pitch, our conversations have drifted into the more practical considerations of how to stay fit when pregnant.

My friend is a fit girl and always has been. She hopes to continue moving her body and feel the benefits of exercise throughout her pregnancy. However, she is also discovering that she is becoming paralysed with fear, unsure how to best move her body. Once comfortable navigating the gym, she now stops and wonders before each new exercise what she is allowed to do with her growing belly. 

When researching her questions on Dr Google, my friend stumbled upon an article in the UK Daily Mail newspaper featuring the UK's most decorated rock-climbing champion, Shauna Coxsey. Coxsey, aged 29, was still rock climbing when she was 39 weeks pregnant.

Also read: Why women should lift weights

"Is this for real?" my friend exclaimed. "Can women do this when pregnant?"

If you're not familiar with the story, Shauna Coxsey has been rock climbing since the age of 3, and according to her, it's become more than second nature. She continued to climb, with her doctor's permission, throughout her pregnancy. She said that "it feels way more risky for me to walk down the street. I feel much more likely to trip over on a bumpy road than I do to go up an easy climbing wall."

I can almost feel every gynaecologist's lips tense while reading this, and they would have cause for it. The American Council of Sports Medicine (ACSM) indicates that a woman should avoid risky exercises that may result in falling or high-impact sports such as hockey, gymnastics, horseback riding, and skiing when pregnant. 

However, there were both critics and admirers of this article. Some berated Coxsey for endangering herself and her child, while some praised her for her inspirational story. And in between lies the pregnant women asking themselves the same questions as my friend. What about me? What can I do?

I hate seeing women plagued by anxiety or doubt over something that should bring them joy and probably some much-needed stress relief during such an exciting time. Exercise during pregnancy has many undeniable benefits. For example, a clinical review entitled Exercise in Pregnancy, published in Sports Health, tells us that exercise can help a woman reduce her blood glucose levels, improve her cardiovascular capacity, and help prepare a mother for the physically taxing event of labour.

However, in light of this article, I will have to tackle this gently. I greatly admire Shauna Coxsey, but her position in the fitness world makes a poor comparison to the rest of us. Most of us aren't specialised athletes with decades of intense training and professional coaches constantly by our side. Rather, we are general gym enthusiasts. 

However, elite athletes or not, all pregnant women start with the same course of action: Having a frank discussion with their doctor about the health of their pregnancy and if exercise is the correct course of action for them. The American Council of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG) tells us that even women experiencing a normal pregnancy, who have exercised before becoming pregnant, must still "discuss exercise with your obstetrician-gynaecologist during your early prenatal visits." Granting permission to exercise during pregnancy doesn't solely rely on one's prior fitness levels, but also on your overall health and whether your pregnancy is progressing normally.  

According to the article, Coxsey thankfully had permission from her doctor to continue her sport. Had Coxsey's pregnancy or general health presented any issues for herself and her baby, she may not have been so fortunate to have continued.

However, once doctors give women the "go-ahead" to continue exercise, many are left in the dark about exercising appropriately, with a growing belly in mind. 

Also read: Why you don't have to lose your baby weight in three months

Brianna Battles, a renowned pre & postnatal athleticism coach, gives us some guidance. "We can still do what we enjoy, in the environment we like, if we understand how to actually listen to our body, adjust our training and adapt instead of trying to maintain. None of us is exempt from needing to make adjustments that take into account our changing body, core, and pelvic health, recovering from pregnancy, delivery, symptoms, and then appropriately progressing our fitness toward our goals in a sustainable way."

That sounds pretty reasonable and reassuring. But it doesn't tell us what those adjustments to our exercise routine should be. How can you effectively listen to your body if you don't know what you're listening for? This is where seeking out the advice of a certified prenatal exercise coach, yoga or pilates instructor is a great place to start. Certified coaches are trained to accommodate the rapid changes in a woman's body and adapt their training programs accordingly.

If finding a certified coach isn't an option, the ACSM provides exercise guidelines for pregnant women. Their suggestion is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-paced cardio throughout the week, which can be broken down into 30 minutes, five days a week. Walking isn't the only thing a pregnant woman can do, however. According to ACSM, approved activities for pregnant women are walking, jogging, modified yoga and Pilates programs, stationary cycling, resistance training, and some racquet sports (providing these were done before pregnancy). 

I also tell my pregnant clients first to choose an exercise they genuinely enjoy and do it in a cool environment with loose-fitting clothes. Next, they should always carry a water bottle and religiously sip it throughout their session. I then advise them to sit and rest when necessary or relax and stretch if that isn't what they feel like doing instead. 

Exercising during pregnancy can be a rewarding activity. As long as you approach it with self-compassion and continual conversation with your doctor, report on how you feel during exercise as you progress throughout your pregnancy.

Exercises to avoid during pregnancy:

  • Traditional sit-ups or crunches
  • Ones that involve lying for extended periods of time on your back
  • Exercises where you may hold your breath
  • High impact or jarring exercises
  • Ones that involve a quick change in direction or deep rotation of the torso
  • May also need to phase out planks and push-ups from your exercise routine as your belly grows

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based women's fitness coach 




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