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Confused about pregnancy exercise? Facts not fiction

 

When I was expecting my boys, exercise for pregnancy wasn’t much of a conversation starter. In fact, it barely featured at all: no real information was on offer, it was rarely actively encouraged, there was nowhere much to turn to for advice and pregnancy-specific group exercise wasn’t exactly widespread. In my first pregnancy I did, nevertheless, attend an aerobics class led by a midwife, utterly passionate about the women in her care and with an endearing inability to fit moves to music. We grapevined our way across a 1970s carpeted meeting room, office chairs pushed to one side, and I will never forget the moment when – after many weeks of confusion – I put my hand up and asked her what a “barstelle” was, clearly a highly technical term she repeatedly used when cuing us to do a hamstring stretch. It turned out that said term was actually a “bar stool”, an image she used to get us to sit back into our hamstring stretches. I was mortified.

By my third pregnancy I was massively into fitness (but had not retrained as a professional in this field yet) and was determined to be truly fit for birth and to ping back into shape afterwards. In the absence of any advice I ploughed resolutely onwards with my pre-pregnancy fitness regime, completing my last weights session only three days before giving birth, which was 2 days after my due date, and then picking up my weights again a mere 7 days after delivery. I can distinctly remember thinking “this time last week I was in the middle of giving birth”. Unwise? You bet it was, and I certainly paid the price for being so ill-informed… but that’s a story for another time.

So what about today, in the age of digital information, where we have every piece of imaginable advice quite literally at our fingertips? It should be so easy to get pregnancy fitness advice, right? Well, I reckon it’s actually quite the opposite. Do you find yourself wondering what on earth to believe, what sources to trust, and what to ignore? I mean there’s so much stuff out there, what with celebrities posting videos of their pregnancy workouts, people commenting left right and centre on these videos, friends sharing their individual experiences on social media, global fitness brands plugging their prenatal exercise offerings and to make matters worse, just about everyone offers conflicting advice. It leaves the rest of us like piggies in the middle wondering who exactly to turn to for sound advice, advice that we can confidently follow without worrying that we’ll harm ourselves or jeaopardise the wellbeing of the precious baby we are carrying. The net result can often lead to one of two reactions: sit back and do nothing because it’s all so confusing that it’s better to be safe than sorry, or carry on as usual with the pre-pregnancy exercise routine because, after all, pregnancy isn’t an illness!

But it shouldn’t have to be that way because with the right tools and by busting a few commonplace myths you can keep fit – and safe – in pregnancy. Let’s bust a few myths: 

Fact or fiction? Now that I am pregnant I must stick to gentle exercise such as walking and swimming.

Fiction For starters, if exercise was part of your daily life pre-pregnancy, and if your pregnancy is progressing smoothly, then you can take part in moderate exercise whilst expecting. Remember that “moderate” has to be moderate for YOU: it’s how YOU feel when taking part in a particular form of exercise and not how others are feeling. So when you see a super-fit celebrity performing burpees in her second trimester, just remember that her perception of “moderate” will most likely be different from yours. After all, we all bring to our pregnancies our individual levels of fitness. So if you were a regular runner pre-pregnancy, then carrying on through pregnancy, all whilst working at your own, personal “moderate” level, is perfectly fine. Having said that, those entirely new to exercise should stick to walking, swimming and pregnancy-tailored fitness.

Fact or fiction? Weight training should be avoided when pregnant.

Fiction If you are used to working with weights and are sure that you have good technique (if not, get a personal trainer to check this out) then resistance training is a great way of keeping the body strong through pregnancy, ready for birth and preparing you for a speedier postnatal recovery. In fact, a strong body is less likely to be afflicted by the typical pregnancy-related aches and pains. Having said this, I would recommend reducing from heavy to moderate weights as working with very heavy weights in pregnancy could damage your pelvic floor muscles and this is very debilitating. If you have never used weights before, it is still safe for you to use resistance bands to keep fit and strong.

Fact or fiction? Abdominal exercises should be avoided when expecting.

Fiction During the first trimester, before your bump is showing, you can carry on performing typical abs exercises such as sit-ups and planks if these were part of your pre-pregnancy regime. Once you reach the second trimester these sorts of exercises should be swapped for abdominal work that targets the deep, stabilising layer of abdominals commonly referred to as the “core”. Keeping this corset-like layer of muscle toned during pregnancy is an excellent way of minimising back pain and will help with recovery postnatally. Typical examples of core stability work that is appropriate for pregnancy are all-fours opposite arm and leg raises, or all fours hand raises ensuring that the back and torso remain still and stable throughout.

Fact or fiction? Fully qualified fitness professionals – instructors and personal trainers - know how to adapt exercise for pregnancy.

Fiction Do not expect a fitness professional to necessarily know exactly how to adapt exercise for pregnancy and the postnatal period. Standard training does not include this specialist area. You need to see someone who has a minimum of a level 3 certificate in exercise for pregnancy. You can find fully qualified specialists in this field via the Guild of Pregnancy and Postnatal Exercise Instructors website.

Fact or fiction? My midwife and GP can give me fitness advice. 

Fiction Midwives and medical professionals in general do not receive training related to fitness and so it is hard for them to give you advice. Just as you would not expect a fitness professional to advise you on a medical condition, do not rely on your health care provider being able to answer fitness-related questions accurately.

Fact or fiction? Pregnancy yoga and aquanatal are the two best forms of fitness for pregnancy.

Fiction Whilst pregnancy yoga is very popular and incorporates many useful breathing techniques for labour, and whilst aquanatal is a particularly pleasant way of doing aerobic exercise in late pregnancy, neither have the monopoly on what constitutes “a good way to exercise when pregnant”. There are many forms of exercise which are great for pregnancy and it is not really a case of “one size fits all”. To a large extent you can and should be dictated by what forms of exercise you truly love doing just so long as they are not risky (contact sports and dangerous activities) and your pregnancy is healthy. So, for example, if you are a seasoned runner and your mood is uplifted by the great outdoors, then carrying on with some gentle jogging for as long as feels comfortable and good, can only be a positive thing. Having said this, there is no doubt that certain forms of exercise are particularly beneficial when expecting: swimming and water-based exercise will give you a feeling of lightness in late pregnancy; walking is functional, fun and sociable and prenatal Pilates is ideal for keeping your deep abdominal muscles toned, staving off pregnancy back pain, strengthening posture and managing pelvic pain.   

   

 Fact or fiction? Exercise diverts nutrients away from your baby.

Fiction Your baby will get what s/he needs from your own stores and will not be deprived of nutrients because you are exercising. Make sure that you keep your blood sugar levels even by having a light snack around an hour before exercising and also afterwards. This will stop you from feeling lightheaded. Having said this, avoid overheating when exercising: your body can cool down but your baby cannot and this can be detrimental. So keep cool and keep hydrated too.  

Fact or fiction? I have never exercised and so I must not start exercising in pregnancy.

Fiction Whilst it is true that you shouldn’t launch into a new, intensive fitness regime when pregnant, you can safely take up a regular walking programme, swimming or exercise that has been tailored specifically for pregnancy such as aquanatal. Start gradually and build things up very gently.

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