Exercise By Trimester – What You Need To Know

There is a lot of information available online about prenatal exercise. Unfortunately though, so much of that information is fear mongering, not evidence-based, or just there to sell an expensive program. We want to change that. While we’d love for you get your prenatal exercise with us, what is most important is that you trust your body and move it often, whether it’s in our class, at home, or elsewhere. And as always, discuss your physical activity with your doctor or midwife. Serious complications are very rare, but must be considered by a qualified prenatal health care professional.

Here is our best advice, based not only on our over ten years of experience as prenatal fitness specialists, but more importantly, on the best available evidence and research on prenatal exercise.

First Trimester

While not yet restricted by belly size or some of the other changes in pregnancy, the first trimester for many is marked by fatigue and nausea, and physical activity is understandably a low priority. Unfortunately, there are also persistent old wives’ tales about physical activity in early pregnancy being dangerous. Even some health and fitness professionals propagate this misinformation. We believe this is damaging to your belief about the capability of your body, and can have detrimental effects in pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Avoiding physical activity during the first trimester, while sometimes important for your comfort, is not safer or healthier. 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 you to do what you can. Even just five minutes of gentle movement can help you feel better and be more prepared to increase your physical activity later on. It’s not all or nothing. On good days, try to do light activity that doesn’t trigger unpleasant symptoms, perhaps a short walk or gentle yoga, and on bad days, allow yourself to rest knowing you’re doing your best. There aren’t any exercises you absolutely cannot do (always working in consultation with your doctor/midwife, of course!), but we want to maximize your benefits and minimize your risks. Firstly and most importantly—listen to your body. If you’re focused on how you feel versus expectations and results, you’re more likely to pick up on cues such as fatigue or thirst. Following that simple advice will safeguard against the most common issues that might arise, like dehydration.

If you’re one of the lucky ones not experiencing intense nausea or fatigue, then with a few minor tweaks, your first trimester exercise can look a lot like before. Doctors recommend avoiding extreme heat, so consider replacing hot yoga with a non-heated class, and if your favorite activity entails a risk of falling or injury, such a climbing, consider switching to hiking or another lower risk activity.

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.

Second Trimester

Happily, many are starting to get their energy back in the second trimester and find their nausea is decreasing in frequency and intensity. We recommend taking advantage of these months and getting in as much physical activity as you feel comfortable doing. The American College of Obstretricians and Gynecologists recommends 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. Remember, even a few minutes of exercise each week is better than none.

The considerations are largely the same as the first trimester. We encourage you to work within your comfort zone and listen to your body. Take water breaks often. Avoid excessive heat. Pay attention to how you’re feeling. At this point, too much jumping, twisting, or bending is probably starting to feel uncomfortable with your growing belly, especially as you reach the end of this trimester. Modifying activity to accommodate those changes will make exercise much more accessible and enjoyable. Working a prenatal fitness special can be very helpful in know how to modify, but your comfort is your best guide.

Fitness goals during pregnancy differ from those of outside of pregnancy, and we really want to use our physical activity to work towards meeting these unique needs. Now that you’re (hopefully) feeling better, we recommend shifting the focus away from doing whatever the nausea allows towards more specific goals. We recommend prioritizing activities that focus on strength, mobility, balance, coordination, and stress relief. Thankfully, most exercise fits that bill, but we of course are partial to prenatal yoga! With prenatal exercise, 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.

The second trimester for many is when the typical aches and pains of pregnancy begin to rear their ugly heads. Most notice back pain, particularly in the low back, sometimes all the way down the butt. 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 telling you that a certain exercise or stretch cures a certain pain is taking liberties with the evidence. However, we do know that those who exercise regularly throughout pregnancy report fewer aches and pains. So while we don’t know specifically what activity helps what ailment, we do know it’s important to keep moving.

If you’re still not feeling well, please know that you are healthy and strong! Just do what you can, when you can. Keep movement light and easy. Trust that resting is beneficial and you’re doing great.

Take-away: Listen intently to your body and trust in its strength. Focus on training for the months ahead.

Third Trimester

If that belly hasn’t gotten in the way yet, it’s likely to now! Additionally, changing 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 you to be compassionate with yourself, we also urge you 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 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 enjoy. We do recommend finding a fitness professional who specializes in pregnancy to make sure your instructor understands the needs of pregnancy, though as always, your comfort is your best guide! We also believe strongly in the support you can receive by attending classes with others going through pregnancy. There is a positive, supportive energy in the room and we cannot overstate how helpful that can be in those last weeks.

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 at your next appointment. If you have contractions during exercise, take it easy and talk to your doctor or midwife, but know that this is common and usually perfectly fine. 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 you 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 to gain more by being active. We believe in you. Move that body!