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Exercise is Good for You and Your Baby
By Lisbeth Jordan, M.D.
There are many misconceptions about exercise during pregnancy. Fear, ignorance and lack of research have perpetuated the notion that it can be harmful. In fact, new research over the last ten to fifteen years has shed new light on the benefits of exercise during pregnancy. We now know it can be safe and healthy for you and your baby. Itís not just okay to exercise while you are pregnant, it is actually beneficial.
Why should I exercise during pregnancy? I thought it was a time to rest.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends regular, mild to moderate exercise during pregnancy. Once you are cleared by your healthcare provider, you will find many ways exercise during and after your pregnancy can help you and your baby. Proven benefits include: an increase in overall energy; reduction in overall stress; a decrease in unnecessary weight gain; reduction of many common pregnancy discomforts such as backaches, leg cramps, constipation and hemorrhoids; prevention of urinary incontinence; improvement in sleep; reduction of overall labor time and labor pain; reduced risk of Cesarean Birth; improvement in self-image and decreased risk of depression; reduction in overall postpartum recovery time; and improvement in fitness after birth.
I thought exercise could be unsafe for my baby.
In the past there were concerns that exercise during pregnancy caused complications, but new studies have shown that mothers who exercise regularly throughout their pregnancy have fewer complications than those who remain sedentary. It also used to be thought that exercise diverted blood flow away from the fetus to your muscles, reducing oxygen and nutrient supply to the baby. However, moderate exercise during pregnancy, actually promotes growth and function of the placenta, which improves the ability to transport nutrients and oxygen to your baby. Your newborn benefits as well. Babies of moms who exercise regularly during pregnancy have been shown to be more calm, content and alert. These children are also less likely to be overweight.
Iíve heard I should monitor my heart rate during exercise and keep it below 140 beats per minute. Is this true?
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology no longer recommends a specific target heart rate. The effects of pregnancy on heart rate vary at different times during the pregnancy, making heart rate monitoring an unreliable measure of safety and fitness. The best way to monitor how hard a pregnant woman is exercising is to use a rating of perceived exertion. This is a scale from one to ten, ten being the maximum exertion. It is recommended pregnant women stay in the middle range. If you are able to talk normally while exercising your heart rate is in a good range.
Can exercising while pregnant cause my baby to overheat?
People used to think that exercise during pregnancy was unsafe because it elevates body temperature and would elevate the babyís as well. During pregnancy blood flows more rapidly to the skin to get rid of heat, so your cooling system is actually more efficient. Both exercise and pregnancy also make you sweat more quickly and easily. As a result, women who exercise regularly can deal more effectively with heat stress when pregnant than women who do not exercise. However, be cautious of exercising in hot and humid weather, drink plenty of water and donít exercise if you have a fever. Also avoid hot tubs, jacuzzis, saunas and steam rooms during your pregnancy.
Will exercise decrease my milk supply?
Regular, vigorous aerobic exercise at a moderate to high intensity does not change the amount or quality of your breast milk. It used to be thought that exercising while breastfeeding caused a build-up of lactic acid, which changed the taste of breast milk and decreased infant suckling. However, new research shows that unless you are exercising at an extremely intense and sustained level (above your anaerobic threshold), there is no change in milk production or lactate levels. Keeping hydrated and getting enough sleep will help maintain milk production.
What should I do and not do while pregnant and exercising?
Regular exercise at mild to moderate levels for at least twenty minutes, three to six days a week is recommended. Avoid exercises on your back after the fourth month and exercises that compromise your balance, especially in the third trimester. Do not exercise during pregnancy if you develop conditions such as ruptured membranes, hypertension, premature labor, persistent bleeding after twelve weeks, incompetent cervix, placental disease, a history of preterm labor or more than three miscarriages, or a multiple-birth pregnancy. Always check with your healthcare provide before starting any exercise program.
Dr. Lisbeth Jordan, M.D. is a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist at Salish Womenís Health Clinic. She received her undergraduate degree at Yale University and her medical degree at the Mayo Clinic. She has been in private practice for fourteen years. She is a certified prenatal and postnatal fitness instructor and the instructor of the Prenatal and Postnatal Fitness course at Northgate Community Center.