Exercise During Pregnancy

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5 Months Along and Pumping Iron! So you may have heard we are expecting… we’re actually half way there – crazy!! I’ve been looking into exactly what level of exercise is safe and beneficial during pregnancy, and one of my colleagues was kind enough to give me his latest issue of The Strength and Conditioning Journal, which has a thorough article on the topic. The article is authored by Brad Schoenfeld (MSc, CSCS), and is extremely detailed in covering all the aspects of training during pregnancy; great find! Here’s what I took from it:
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The Benefits of Exercise During Pregnancy:

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  • Improved weight management: This one seems pretty obvious, since a common complaint among mothers is post-natal weight gain. This article cited several studies which found that women who exercise gain less weight during pregnancy and return to their pre-pregnancy weight much more quickly and easily than women who were inactive. It is also important to note that women who gained more weight during pregnancy were significantly heavier in long term followups.
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  • Reduced risk of gestational diabetes: GD is the most common complication associated with pregnancy, affecting one in ten women!  This is a diabetes like condition that greatly increases the mother’s risk for diabetes post-natal, and significantly increases the child’s risk of obesity and type one and two diabetes! Women who exercised during pregnancy had a substantially lower risk of GD, an the amount of protection was directly proportional to the amount of exercise the woman did while pregnant.
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  • Reduced incidence of Preeclampsia: Preeclampsia is  a serious vascular condition responsible for as many as half of maternal deaths in the US! It turns out this frightening condition too is protected from by exercise exactly in proportion to the volume of exercise done while pregnant.
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  • Enhanced body Image/well being: The weight gain and mood swings associated with pregnancy can have negative effects on a woman’s body image and level of psychological well being, so what could be better than weight gain management and endorphins from regular exercise?! Not to mention keeping those muscles toned!
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  • Reduced lower back pain: Lower back pain is one of the most common problems during pregnancy since the curvature of the spine increases at the same time as a shift in center of gravity and an overall loosening of tendons and ligaments. Women who specifically exercised their core during pregnancy reported significantly reduced low back pain throughout the term.
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  • Improved fetal development!!: This is the cincher in my mind – exercise (especially vigorous exercise) improves the mother’s cardiac output, increasing blood flow (and nutrients/oxygen) to the placenta and fetus! Women who exercised while pregnant had newborns with more lean body mass and less bodyfat, and those same children grew up to be more disciplined and attentive, and had greater neurological development than their peers in a 5 year follow up study!
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  • Easier labor!: Women who exercised, and especially weight trained, while pregnant had a much lower rate of premature labor, lower rate of Cesarean Sections, and a faster post-natal recovery. These women also had a shorter duration of active labor and a lower rate of acute fetal stress!
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The Risks of Exercise During Pregnancy: Common reasons not to exercise… that shouldn’t be.
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  • Hyperthermia (overheating): Pregnant women were found to stay well within the safe body-temperature range even during intense exercise. This may be because their increased blood volume dissipates heat more rapidly, and sweating begins at a lower body temperature.
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  • Miscarriage: Women who exercise were actually found to have a lower rate of miscarriage, with even intense exercise showing no increased risk of pregnancy loss!
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  • Joint Injuries: The hormone relaxin causes pregnant women’s joints to become more flexible and less stable, increasing the risk of injury during some exercises. The studies review showed no relationship between pregnancy and rate of injury, but it seems wise to err on the side of caution while training.
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As you can see, the benefits far outweigh what risks there are, so any of you expecting out there should get into the gym! The article went on to give some guidelines for safe exercise during the different stages if pregnancy, and even offered some sample programs!
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First Trimester: During this period, you can train pretty much as you always have, except that you will be fatigued and may suffer from morning sickness so exercise intensity and frequency will likely be lower than usual. You also want to take extra care to avoid overheating by wearing loose clothing and drinking plenty of water. Since your joints are also more flexible during this time, pay extra close attention to form and err on the light side when selecting weight to avoid injury. The only exercises you should really avoid are ballistic moves like the clean and snatch, as well as plyometrics, due to the increased risk of injury.
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Second/Third Trimester: After the first trimester is when the major changes in a woman’s body occur, so more specific exercise selection is warranted:
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  1. The first change is to avoid all supine (lying on your back) exercises like bench press because blood flow to the uterus is restricted in this position.  These exercises can still be performed on an incline, or using a machine to simulate the motion while sitting up.
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  3. Core exercises should be limited to those which do not compress the abdomen (crunches/sit ups/ leg lifts). Instead, train your core with static exercises like plank.
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  5. You also want to avoid exercises that utilize forward hip flexion and place stress on the lower back, such as squats, deadlifts and romanian deadlifts. These exercises will become more difficult as a woman’s center of gravity changes, and they can exacerbate lower back pain.
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  7. Finally, all overhead pressing exercises should be avoided after the first trimester because they place a lot of stress on the lower back (even while seated). Instead use options like lateral raises and upright rows to train your shoulders.
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So as you can see, exercise is actually extremely important for an expectant mother, arguably even more so than for the general population. If you or anyone you know is expecting, now is the time to get to the gym and build you and your baby’s body!  
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