Since I’ve been a competitive swimmer for the past quarter century, I knew I would keep stroking after I became pregnant with my son Corey (who’s now 4). If I needed further impetus, I just had to look at my lane buddy, who kept swimming until the day she delivered. She convinced me that the pool workout would give me a mental boost and relieve both fatigue and my aching back. Exercise and pregnancy just seemed a natural, healthy pairing.
The preeminent researcher in the field, James F. Clapp III, M.D., agrees. In Exercising Through Your Pregnancy (Human Kinetics, 1998), he outlines numerous benefits that exercise bestows on both baby and mother. His research shows, for example, that women who continue to do weight-bearing workouts at least half as hard as they did prepregnancy can expect to deposit and retain less fat, feel better, control gestational diabetes without insulin, have shorter and less-complicated labors, and recover postpartum more rapidly than nonexercisers. Active pregnant women also report fewer incidents of low-back pain, leg cramps and pelvic discomfort, according to physical therapist Ann Swayne, director of Highland Park Hospital’s Fit Beginnings prenatal exercise classes in Buffalo Grove, Ill. Well-conditioned women have been shown to have less risk of early delivery than low- to moderate-LEVEL exercisers, a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health shows. No less important are the psychological rewards. “The women I have worked with who exercised during pregnancy reported improved self-esteem and a better sense of control during a somewhat unpredictable time of their lives,” says Swayne.
Laying to rest several common concerns, Clapp found that women who continue regular, vigorous exercise throughout early pregnancy do not increase their chances of miscarriage or of having a baby with birth defects. Recent research also indicates that regular exercise during pregnancy does not make a woman more likely to go into early labor.
But while exercise can be an important adjunct to an uncomplicated pregnancy, common sense should prevail. Now is not the time to set any personal speed records, and you should stop exercising immediately if you experience injury, illness, pain or bleeding.
Clapp offers three good rules of thumb:
1. Follow each hour’s workout with an hour of restful activity;
2. Remember, exercise should make you feel relaxed, not noticeably stressed; and
3. When in doubt about the vigorousness of your workout, use common sense, and slow down if you’re tired.
Also, avoid activities in which you could take a hard fall, such as biking, horseback riding and skiing (either downhill or water). Before you get started with a workout program, discuss it with your health care provider and check out the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists exercise guidelines.
Two of the best forms of prenatal exercise are walking and swimming, and we offer programs for both. Mark Fenton, editor at large for Walking magazine and author of The 90-Day Fitness Walking Program (Perigee, 1995), is your walking guide, while water-fitness expert Linda LaRue, R.N., M.Ed., designed the water workout. You can do either or both programs as you choose.
Walk This Way
“Walking offers benefits no matter what your fitness LEVEL is when you become pregnant,” says Fenton. “If you are a moderate or beginning exerciser, 5–10 minutes gets your body moving; if you are hard-core, a 30-minute power walk is a great workout.” Even the most hard-core athletes often end up walking (or swimming) toward the end of pregnancy.
That’s because walking offers aerobic benefits, without the jarring of jogging and running. “When you walk, you strike the ground with just your body weight,” Fenton says. “When you run, you strike with three times your weight.”
Fenton’s program allows you to choose the routine most appropriate to your fitness LEVEL, stage of pregnancy and how you are feeling on any given day. A pair of walking shoes with good arch support is key, along with a supportive bra.