The early weeks of pregnancy are fragile—and confusing. Here, the answers to your questions.
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The list of benefits that exercise provides during pregnancy may be nearly as long as your baby-shower wish list: Women who stay fit during pregnancy improve posture and muscle tone, have more strength and stamina for labor, are at a lower risk for gestational diabetes, have a better self-image, feel a greater sense of control over their bodies and are less likely to have negative feelings about sex. They also dissipate heat more efficiently than sedentary pregnant women. So does this mean you should scale mountains or run marathons this summer? Not exactly, because researchers don’t know exactly how much exercise is safe for pregnant women. Does it mean that taking a leisurely stroll along the beach once a week will help you reap these benefits? Probably not. So what is the answer?
As the old saying goes, everything in moderation, especially when it comes to prenatal exercise. Working out too much and too frequently could have negative implications, and if you exercise sporadically, you won’t experience all the benefits of regular prenatal exercise. Yet figuring out what moderation means in day-to-day terms isn’t easy. You have to listen to your body, be willing to accept your limits and follow some basic guidelines.
the frequency factor
How often you should exercise depends on the frequency with which you worked out, if at all, before becoming pregnant, according to experts. “If you’re an athlete or worked out regularly three months prior to pregnancy, you can probably continue your same routine, with caution and adjustments, until it becomes too uncomfortable,” says Sharon Zaleski, an obstetrical nurse in Atlanta who has taught aerobics for 17 years. (Before undertaking any prenatal exercise program, be sure to check with your doctor, and read the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Guidelines)
If you didn’t exercise regularly before becoming pregnant, you should begin by working out at a low level two to four days a week. Do a strength-training routine on alternating days, rather than scheduling consecutive workouts. (Of course, you can walk every day.) Zaleski also suggests following a regular exercise plan instead of working out intermittently, which can lead to increased muscle soreness and possible injury.
The next important consideration is to determine your moderate intensity level. In your first trimester, you may feel like working out at the same intensity that you followed before becoming pregnant. But as your pregnancy progresses, you naturally will tend to reduce the intensity of your workout because your body’s working capacity will be lower. “You’ll feel like you’re working as hard, but your body is constantly making you slow down,” says Bonnie Rote, R.N., a prenatal exercise specialist in Delafield, Wis.
The best way to make sure you’re working out at a moderate intensity is to monitor your heart rate. (Your heart rate tends to elevate faster while you’re pregnant because of your extra body weight and blood volume.) Rote suggests keeping it in the 60 percent to 70 percent range of your maximum heart rate. (To determine your maximum heart rate range, subtract your age from 220 and multiply by .6 and .7.) After cooling down for five minutes, your heart rate should drop to below 120 beats per minute within four to five minutes, Rote says. If it doesn’t, you could be pushing yourself too hard.
Another way to ensure that you’re working out at a moderate level is to use perceived rate of exertion, which means rating your intensity according to how you’re feeling.