It used to be rare to see pregnant women exercising, and yet today you can see pregnant women in almost any gym class, out walking and running everyday. However, there are risks and benefits!
Some high-profile athletes have even been seen ice-skating, skiing and horseback riding while pregnant. None of these specific activities are recommended, by the way, for the general public while pregnant, but it does help increase the awareness that exercise is no longer forbidden once you conceive!

Actually, the opposite is true, in general. Exercise during pregnancy can help keep you fit and feeling good about yourself. It increases circulation, strengthens muscles, decreases heart rate, decreases insomnia, decreases constipation, helps with back pain and improves self-image. Some studies show a correlation between exercise levels during pregnancy and shorter labors, better maternal stress management, lower intervention/c-section rates and lower risk of premature delivery. Women who exercise during pregnancy also reported an overall lower level of discomfort during pregnancy — always a plus!

So how do you know if it’s okay for you to exercise? And how intense can your exercise routine be? Well, one general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t start an intense exercise regime during pregnancy. That is to say, if you were a runner before you got pregnant, you can probably keep running — although at a slightly lower intensity level — during pregnancy. If you lifted weights, or did step aerobics, or most other activities, you can probably continue your program, albeit with a few modifications.

So what’s with all of the disclaimers? Why “probably,” “maybe” and “usually”? Well, the fact is that each woman’s pregnancy is different. Your body and your needs may vary from those of every other pregnant woman. While none of us look forward to the inevitable weight gain that comes with pregnancy, it’s a fact of life and if you’re exercising purely to avoid weight gain you may need to re-think your goals. However, if you want to continue an existing exercise routine, or add in some reasonable activity to your life, your doctor will probably give you their blessing.

There are some important reasons to talk to your doctor before starting (or even continuing) an exercise routine during pregnancy, though. As your body responds to the demands of the baby growing within you, the demands upon your body change as well. In general, this means that you have extra blood, an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, muscle relaxation, changes in your center of gravity, enlarged breasts and uterus, excess stress on your lower back and more.

So what activities are okay during pregnancy? Your doctor will discuss these with you, and you may find that this is a good time to explore some new activities as well. In general, as long as you keep your core temperature down (don’t overheat), stay hydrated and avoid high impact/jolting/traumatic activities, you can stay active as long as your body allows! Many women exercise right up until the day they deliver — albeit with some modifications to accommodate their changing bodies!

Some activities that are popular with pregnant women include cycling, swimming, water aerobics and floor exercise. Non-weight bearing activities are best. Strength training is good for keeping your muscles toned (and great for self-image!), as long as you avoid moves that require the vasalva maneuver (defined below). Squats and lunges can help increase your leg muscle strength and tone, just keep your loosening joints in mind!

Abdominal exercises are not forbidden, as previously thought, rather, moderate abdominal work can actually strengthen your muscles and help you recover more quickly! Be sure not to lie flat on your back after four months (which can compress vena cava, carrying blood to the baby). Side-lying exercises are generally allowed as long as doctor says it’s okay. Check regularly for abdominal separation (a gap between the muscles in your central abdomen) and stop abdominal work immediately if this occurs. Discuss this with your doctor to prevent further injury to this area, which can affect your muscle recovery.

See part II