Exercise By Trimester – What You Need To Know
There is a lot of information available online about prenatal exercise. In fact, this is likely not the first blog you’ve read on this topic. Unfortunately though, so much of that information is unsubstantiated, fear-based, or used to sell a program that may not even help you. While we’d love for you get your prenatal exercise with us, what we really care about is that you trust your body and move it often, whether it’s in our class, at home, or elsewhere. Here is our best advice, based not only on our ten years of experience as prenatal fitness specialists, but more importantly, on the best available evidence and research on prenatal exercise.
While not yet restricted by belly size or some of the other changes in pregnancy, the first trimester for many women is marked by fatigue and nausea, and physical activity is understandably the least of their concerns. Unfortunately, there are also persistent old wives’ tales that physical activity in early pregnancy is dangerous for mom or baby. Even some health and fitness professionals propagate this misinformation. We believe is this is damaging to women’s beliefs about the capabilities of their bodies, and can have detrimental effects in pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Avoiding physical activity during the first trimester, while sometimes important for mom’s comfort, is not substantiated by evidence. In fact, the opposite has been found to be true—physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health and the health of your baby, from the first week of pregnancy to the last.
We encourage moms to do what they can. Even just five minutes of gentle movement can help moms feel better and be more prepared to increase their physical activity when they feel better later on. It’s not all or nothing! On good days when you feel better, try to do light activity that doesn’t trigger your nausea, and on bad days, allow yourself to rest knowing that you’re doing your best.
While we strongly believe in the robustness and strength of the pregnant body, there are some things to consider to maximize your benefits and minimize your risks. To be clear, the most common risks are not serious pregnancy complications but instead minor injury or exhaustion for mom. Firstly and most importantly—listen to your body. If you’re focused on how you feel versus expectations and results, you’ll likely pick up on your body’s cues, such as fatigue or thirst. Following that simple advice will safeguard against the most common issues that might arise, like dehydration.
We recommend exercising at an intensity in which you can carry on a conversation, are not profusely sweating, and are a comfortable temperature. It’s likely time to ditch hot yoga, extreme aerobic activity, and working towards large fitness gains. We encourage mom to keep doing all her favorite activities—within reason—just making a few minor tweaks.
Take-away—Do what you can, when you can. Don’t be afraid of exercise, but cut yourself slack on those days, or even weeks, when you’re just not feeling it.
That belly is starting to interfere with movement now. At this point, too much jumping, twisting, or bending is probably starting to feel uncomfortable, especially as you reach the end of this trimester. Happily, many moms are starting to get their energy back and find that the nausea is fading. We recommend taking advantage of these months and squeezing in as much physical activity as you feel comfortable doing. American College of Obstretricians and Gynecologists recommends that you shoot for 2-3 hours of physical activity each week. You could try about 20 minutes everyday, an hour long class 2-3 times per week, or whatever feels right to you.
The second trimester for many moms is when the typical aches and pains of pregnancy begin to rear their ugly heads. Most moms notice back pain, particularly in the low back, sometimes all the way down to the buttocks. Aches in the hips, sharp pains in the pelvis, round ligament pain, and more also often make their debut in the second trimester. The research on relief for these common complaints is inconclusive, so anyone who tells you that a certain exercise cures a certain pain is taking liberties with the evidence. However, we do know that women in studies who exercise regularly throughout pregnancy report fewer aches and pains. So while we don’t know specifically what helps what, we do know it’s important to keep moving.
The considerations are largely the same as the first trimester. We encourage you to work within your comfort zone and listen to your body intently. Take water breaks often. Avoid excessive heat. Give yourself plenty of time to warm up. Now that you’re likely feeling better, we recommend shifting the focus away from “do whatever the nausea allows” towards more specific goals. We recommend prioritizing activities that focus on strength, mobility, balance, and stress relief. Our fitness goals as pregnant people differ from those of non-pregnant people, and we really want to use our physical activity to help work towards meeting our unique needs. We are aiming to stay comfortable as pregnancy progresses, prepare our bodies for the work of labor, and set ourselves up for an easier postpartum recovery. We only have so many hours in the day, and it makes sense to train for the very specific demands of pregnancy and birth.
Take-away – Listen intently to your body and trust in its strength. Focus on training for the months ahead.
If that belly hasn’t gotten in the way yet, it’s likely to now! Additionally, poor balance, decreased coordination, low energy, and even negative beliefs about exercise during pregnancy can get in the way of physical activity as you approach the home stretch. And while we always encourage moms to be compassionate with themselves, we also urge them to keep moving till the very last day (and even throughout labor, but that’s another post!). Never is physical activity more beneficial than in those final weeks of pregnancy. Staying active can help ward off severe discomfort, prepare your body for the work of labor, and set you up for an easier postpartum. We want you to be able to get up and around and care for your newborn sooner rather than later. We want you to feel positively about your birth experience and to feel capable of handling the enormity of new motherhood. A foundation of movement in late pregnancy can do a lot to get you there.
We recommend taking opportunities throughout your day to move your body and stay strong. Take the stairs up a flight or two before hopping on the elevator. Ignore those “Expectant Mothers’ Parking” signs, park in the back of the lot, and walk. Try rolling on a birth ball at home instead of lounging on the couch. While you’re cooking dinner, try standing in tree pose and using the countertop to balance. When you bend over, try hinging at the hips and bending the knees to keep those hips mobile and glutes strong.
We also encourage carving out time each week to do more formal, focused exercise, such as prenatal yoga, swimming, dancing, strength training, or whatever you like, but we do recommend finding a fitness professional who specializes in pregnancy to make sure your instructor understands the needs of expectant women. We also believe strongly in the support moms can receive by attending classes with other moms-to-be. There is a positive, supportive energy in the room and we cannot overstate how helpful that can be in those last weeks of pregnancy. Take as many breaks as you need. Drink copious amounts of water. If you notice swelling, scale back. If you feel light or heavy-headed, stop and bring it up with your prenatal care provider. However, rest assured that your body is strong and built for incredible power. The end is near and you’ll be so glad you prepared!
Take-away – Keep moving, however you can! We know its tough, but you are stronger than you know and investing in your well-being now will pay off.
We believe in the power of physical activity to make a huge difference in your quality of life during pregnancy and beyond. It’s important that moms, as well as fitness professionals, understand the unique needs of pregnancy and respect the changes pregnant bodies go through, but we need not fear movement or accept ideas of fragility about pregnancy. Pregnancy is a healthy condition, not a handicap. Never are you more powerful than during pregnancy, and never do you stand more to gain by being active. We believe in you. Move that body, mama!