Exercising Pre-Pregnancy Could Prevent Pain Later

Trying to conceive? New study finds pre-conception exercise may prevent pelvic pain in pregnancy, giving you one more reason to get in shape before getting pregnant.

Exercising Pre-Pregnancy Could Prevent Pain Later lzf/Shutterstock

Everyone knows that exercise is good for you, but when you're trying to conceive it might seem a bit futile—you're just going to gain weight again once you get pregnant, right? Not exactly. A new study lends more evidence to the notion that working out isn't just about losing weight, but preparing your body to meet new challenges, including pregnancy. The research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that women who exercised before pregnancy had a lower rate of pelvic girdle pain (pain around the joints and ligaments of the pelvis) than women who didn't.

More exercise, less pain

The researchers looked at over 39,000 pregnant women participating in the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study, an ongoing, long-term project to assess health in pregnancy and children. The women were asked about the type and frequency of exercise they participated in for the three months before they got pregnant. Then at 30 weeks, they were asked about how much pelvic girdle pain they were having. "Our results showed that women who exercised before they became pregnant with their first child had the lowest risk of developing pelvic girdle pain in pregnancy," study author Katrine Mari Owe, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychosomatics and Health Behavior at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, Norway, tells Fit Pregnancy. High-impact exercising between three to five times a week was associated with a 14 percent lower risk of pelvic girdle pain.

Although the findings showed the more often (up to five times a week) and more intense the exercise was, the less pain there was later, Owe says that lesser amounts of lesser exercise helped, too. "Even those women who reported low frequencies of exercise had a reduced risk of pelvic girdle pain, [but] women who were running, jogging, playing ball games, doing high impact aerobics or orienteering before pregnancy had the lowest risk," she says.

Pelvic girdle pain can affect any of the joints and ligaments all the way around your pelvis, including those near the public bone in the front and the sacrum in the back, at any time during pregnancy as the growing baby puts pressure on the area and changes your posture. It's often felt when walking, climbing stairs or turning over in bed, and affects from 20 to 45 percent of all pregnancies, Owe says. The causes of pelvic girdle pain are still unknown, but scientists aren't sure whether the hormone relaxin, which loosens up ligaments during pregnancy, plays a role. Although it's not associated with severe pregnancy complications, "pelvic girdle pain may give rise to functional disability, higher levels of depression, reduced quality of life and higher prevalence of sick leave during pregnancy," Owe says. Plus, the pain often leads to greater inactivity, which itself can increase the risks of excess weight gain, high blood pressure and gestational diabetes.

It's still not known exactly why exercise helps with pelvic pain, Owe says. "However, based on other studies, exercise have shown to have a hypoalgesic [reduced sensitivity] effect on pain in non-pregnant individuals and in chronic pain patients," she says. "Since we observed the lowest risk for pelvic girdle pain among women who performed high impact exercises, we speculate that aerobic exercise may have a hypoalgesic effect in pregnant women."

Should you start working out?

If you're already pregnant and haven't been exercising, starting an intense workout routine now may not be advisable—and is probably too little too late to reduce pelvic pain anyway. "Unfortunately, effective treatment strategies including exercise for pelvic girdle pain during pregnancy is limited and the effects are small," Owe says. But if you're having pain, there are some things you can try to lessen it, including physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, aquatic exercise and wearing a supporting pelvic belt. For most women, the pain goes away after the baby is born, although two to three percent will experience it up to a year after birth.

But if you're still trying to get pregnant, these findings are another reason to be as healthy and fit as possible before you conceive. And if your body is used to exercise, you can continue to do it once you become pregnant as well. Although the best results for preventing pain came from intense workout routines, Owe says every little bit helps. "According to our study, exercising once or twice a week is better than no exercise when it comes to reducing the risk of pelvic girdle pain in pregnancy," she says.