Here's how to mix walking with strength moves for a totally fit pregnancy.
I always thought I’d be one of those women who went into labor at the gym. Before I was pregnant, I competed in triathlons, biked centuries and climbed mountains. Once I got pregnant, I was determined not to slow down, as long as my activities wouldn’t harm my baby. It wasn’t long, though, before morning sickness and fatigue began to thwart my plans. In addition, I learned I was carrying twins, and discomfort from my growing belly made it hard to maintain a high-intensity exercise program past the fifth month.
Walking was my salvation. It kept me fit and comfortable throughout the nine months, and along the way I discovered what the experts are continuing to prove: that an active lifestyle has many benefits for pregnant women.
“Exercise won’t make a better baby or a more superior pregnancy, but it can help promote a normal pregnancy and prevent things that interfere with one,” says Larry Wolfe, Ph.D., director of the Clinical Exercise Physiology Lab at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, and co-developer of an exercise-readiness assessment for pregnant women. Staying active may cut your risk of preeclampsia, also called pregnancy-induced hypertension, and gestational diabetes, both of which are less common among active women. Prenatal exercisers also show less excess weight gain and fewer varicose veins and blood clots. Keep yourself moving and you’re likely to feel more energetic, less stressed and more comfortable in your daily chores as well.
prenatal walking program
Level Consider yourself inactive if you haven’t consistently been doing cardio work 2–3 times a week for at least 2 months.
The program The chart opposite outlines length, duration, pace, time (morning or afternoon, for split days) and place (outdoors or in) of your walks. It’s also divided by trimester. By varying time and intensity, you’ll be able to maintain your fitness level and not overtire as your pregnancy progresses.
The split days help you deal with exercise time constraints, as well as give you a way to increase your energy twice a day.
Treadmill walks are divided into intervals (fast segments followed by slower ones), as an efficient way of increasing aerobic conditioning without overexertion.
Frequency Do this walk routine 4–5 times a week. If possible, engage a partner to walk with you at least
once a week.
Warm–up Begin each walk at an easy pace for first 5 minutes; then stop to stretch calves, hamstrings, quadriceps and lower back.
Cool–down If you’ve walked 20 minutes or more, slow down to warm-up pace for the first 5 minutes. Then do stretches for legs, hips flexors and back, holding each for 20–30 seconds without bouncing.
Active pregnant women even breathe easier. A recent study by Wolfe and Patricia Ohtake, Ph.D., of 27 previously nonfit pregnant women, showed that those who spent 20 weeks during their second and third trimesters doing up to 25 minutes of stationary cycling three times a week felt less out of breath (a common complaint in the later stages of pregnancy) than those who remained inactive.
The exercise you do during pregnancy also produces a healthy environment for your growing baby. “If you exercise enough to strengthen your heart, lungs, oxygen transport system and muscles, all those systems that protect the baby will also be stronger,” says Wolfe.
That said, pregnancy is no time to train for a world record, or even a personal one. No matter how fit you were prepregnancy, expect to do less now. As your pregnancy progresses, it’s crucial to heed your body’s signals. “The third trimester, especially, is not a time to do anything you’re not used to,” says Wolfe. “Don’t make any increases, and cut back if you feel tired.”
Nevertheless, even if you’re out of the exercise habit, you don’t have to be stuck on the sidelines while active women have all the fun and reap all the benefits. Just be cautious about the activities you choose.
One of the safest exercises is walking; it’s easy on the body because there’s no pounding, and it carries less chance of accident or injury than most other activities. That’s key, according to Wolfe, because as your weight increases and the hormone relaxin loosens your pelvic joints in preparation for delivery, you may be more susceptible to accidental (such as sprained ankles) or overuse injuries (such as tendonitis).
Not for wimps
Despite its gentle reputation, walking isn’t too wimpy for even the fittest women. “It’s something you can adjust to any level or intensity,” says Angela Settle, a Chicago-based trainer and fitness expert.
Walking is a great aerobic conditioner because it works the large muscles in your legs and buttocks. You can keep challenging yourself with it, too: A study conducted by Wolfe and others found that fit, healthy pregnant women are well-equipped to regulate the lactic acid produced during even strenuous exercise. That means you gonzo walkers can continue to charge up hills (at least until the third trimester), as long as you can keep your balance.
No matter what shape you’re in, it’s nice to have a simple exercise plan. Walking is about as straightforward as you can get — all it takes is a pair of supportive, comfortable shoes and a place to put down your two feet. That simplicity is something you’ll welcome after baby comes, too, when you’re ready to ease back into exercise on your own, or with your new cargo in a carriage or carrier.
How to get going
Whether you’ve been sedentary or you’re already in shape, you’ll find the right challenge, thanks to this prenatal walking program for both active and formerly inactive moms-to-be, designed by exercise physiologist Mary Yoke, M.A. Before you get started, check with your doctor and review the exercise guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“Walking is a great all-around choice, and it’s the one exercise that almost every woman can do,” says Yoke, who walked throughout her own pregnancy. Her program can be adapted to the outdoors or for treadmills, and also includes six basic strength moves you can do at home to complement the aerobic component. “Strengthening work will help you maintain lean body mass and bone density during pregnancy,” she explains.
During my own pregnancy, I was still taking 20-minute walks at lunchtime the week before I gave birth. Walking remains an important part of my day, but now, my two baby girls come along for the ride.
1. Split lunge Stand with right foot in front of left, hip-width apart, and left heel lifted. Place hands on hips. Bend both knees so right knee is in line with right ankle and left knee points to ground. Straighten leg; repeat for reps. Switch sides. Weight: –10 pounds in each hand. To modify: In the first trimester, active exercisers can do a regular lunges holding dumbbells, if they’re accustomed to it. In the second trimester, do this exercise using no weight, and in the third trimester, hold onto a support, such as a bench or the back of a chair. Strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings and buttocks.
2. Overhead press Stand with feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height, elbows bent close to sides, forearms parallel and palms facing each other. Contract abdominals and squeeze shoulder blades together to help maintain posture. Without swaying, straighten arms overhead; keep arms separated and don’t lock elbows. Bend elbows, lowering to starting position; repeat. Weight: 3–10 pounds. To modify: As you need more support, sit all the way back in a chair. If you feel pain in shoulders or wrists, decrease your weight. Strengthens middle shoulders, upper back and biceps.
3. One–arm bent–over row Stand facing a sturdy support, such as a bench or heavy chair, with right foot in front of left in lunge position, right knee slightly bent in line with right ankle and left heel lifted. Place right hand on support, with elbow slightly bent and dumbbell in left hand, and bend forward from hips until back is parallel to ground. Extend left arm straight down from shoulder, palm facing thigh. Keep hips square and contract abdominals so spine is in neutral alignment (there should be no stress placed on lower back. Bend left arm
to pull weight up toward waist without twisting torso. Straighten arm to starting position and repeat. Do reps,
change legs and repeat with other arm. Weight: 5–10 pounds. To modify: In the second and third trimesters, do exercise with torso bent only 45 degrees. Strengthens middle back, rear shoulders and some biceps.
4. Seated high row Sit on ground with your legs stretched in front, knees slightly bent. Bend forward from hips and wrap resistance band or tube around both feet. Then sit erect, holding a band end in each hand, arms straight and palms down. Squeeze shoulder blades together and bend elbows back and up until they’re even with shoulders; keep forearms parallel and wrists straight. Slowly straighten arms and repeat. Weight: Choke up or lengthen hold on band to increase or decrease resistance. To modify: If you need more support, sit with buttocks against wall. Strengthens upper back and rear shoulders.
5. Incline push–up Kneel in front of a sturdy bench, couch, or step, your legs hip-width or farther apart . Place hands on bench at shoulder width, arms straight but not locked. Contract abdominals and keep upper body erect. Slowly bend elbows until they’re even with shoulders, and lower chest toward bench, keeping body in line. Straighten arms, contracting chest muscles, and return to starting position; repeat.
To modify: Active exercisers can do regular bent-knee push-ups (hips behind knees) in the first trimester. In the second trimester, do this exercise as described, and in the third trimester, both levels should switch to a wall push-up. Strengthens chest, front of shoulders and triceps.
6. Side–lying ab curl Lie on left side with your knees bent at a 45-degree angle; rest head on upper left arm. Place right hand on belly, elbow bent. Exhale, contracting abdominals to bring ribs toward hips in a crunch; tilt tailbone upward to complete movement. Inhale and uncurl to starting position; repeat. To modify: You can continue with regular ab exercises such as crunches and twists in first trimester; then switch to this exercise for second and third trimesters (both levels). Strengthens abdominals.
Level Consider yourself inactive if you haven’t been strength training consistently for at least 3 months.
Reps and sets If you’ve been inactive, begin doing this routine just twice a week in your first trimester, starting with 1 set of 8–12 reps and the lightest weight recommended. By the end of the trimester, you should be able to do 12 reps easily; then, increase your weight in 2-pound increments. In the second trimester, add a second set or a third day if you choose; rest 30 seconds between sets and accommodate for any changes in balance and belly size. In the third trimester, reduce workouts to twice a week and do 1 or 2 sets of 8–12 reps, using a weight that allows you to complete all reps with good form.
If you’ve been active, do 2–3 sets of 8–12 reps for all 3 trimesters, resting 30 seconds between sets. Choose a weight within the range that lets you complete all reps and sets with good form.
Frequency Do this workout 2 or 3 times a week on alternating days (see the walking program on page 65). You may want to limit workouts to twice a week during the last trimester if you’re feeling tired or
Warm–up Use your walk as a warm-up. Or, if you do strength training first, begin with at least 5 minutes of rhythmic limbering exercises such as marching in place, plié lunging side to side, shoulder rolls and arm circles. Finish with stretches for calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, lower back, chest and shoulders, holding each to a point of mild tension for about 8–10 seconds without bouncing.
Cool-down Stretch all major muscles groups you’ve worked, holding each stretch 20–30 seconds without bouncing. This is a good time to include some Kegels as you relax and unwind.