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Exercising While Pregnant: How Much Is Too Much?

In the past six months, we've seen several pregnant women -- including a ballerina, a CrossFitter and a marathon runner called out in the media for continuing their strenuous exercise regimens. So how much exercise is too much when you're expecting?

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The Benefits of Exercise During Pregnancy

There's long been documentation that exercise during pregnancy has its benefits. Paul Sorace, MS, Fellow of the National Board of Fitness Examiners and a teacher at the American Fitness Professionals and Associates, lists the following:

  • Decreased risk of gestational diabetes & long-term obesity
  • Control of gestational diabetes
  • Improved energy levels
  • Improved posture Improved muscle tone, strength, endurance
  • Possible faster delivery
  • Enhanced recovery from childbirth
  • Reduced backaches
  • Reduced bloating and swelling

So the short answer is: yes, exercise during pregnancy is good. Which types and how strenuous they should be is the real question.

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Exercises to Avoid

While you don't have to treat your body like it's made of eggshells, there are a few sports and activities that are best avoided until after the baby is born. The good news? The ones you should steer clear of are pretty much common sense.

Jim Pivarnik, professor of kinesiology and epidemiology at Michigan State University says that other than avoiding blunt trauma activities and those where you would lose your balance, your beloved gym routine can carry on as usual. "Women should go by their symptoms, what she is doing now compared to when she was not pregnant, and what her doctor allows."

In other words, that "Intro to Tae Kwon Do" that you've always wanted to try? Not good. Yoga and running? Sure. "Weight training is okay, as long as it's not overdone," he says.

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How Much Is Too Much?

Think about your routine not in hours or minutes, but how strenuous it is. While the amount of exercise certainly plays a factor, it's how rigorous the actions are that can negatively affect your pregnancy.

According to Sorace, red-flag symptoms that indicate that your workout has verged into dangerous territory include:

  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Muscle weakness
  • Shortness of breath prior to exercise
  • Calf pain or swelling
  • Dizziness
  • Preterm labor
  • Headache
  • Decreased fetal movement
  • Chest pain
  • Amniotic fluid leakage

As for the pregnant CrossFitter, ballerina, and marathon runner, "at this level of activity, these women are not 'normal' in terms of what their bodies can tolerate," Pivarnik says, "or else they would not be as good in their sport as they are."

If you've been training long before your pregnancy -- for instance, if you've been a five-miles-before-breakfast-no-matter-what kind of gal long before you became expectant, you're likely able to continue your regimen, so long as you get the doctor's okay. If you're the type who heads out to door to do a few miles January 1 and then promptly lose your runner sneakers until May, it's not best to start a rigorous routine now.

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Fit Pregnancy 101: The First Trimester

When it comes to having a fit pregnancy, Gina Harney, a NASM-certified personal trainer, author of blog The Fitnessista and upcoming book HIIT It! (Demos Health, December 2014), knows what she's talking about -- because she's actually been through it.

The mother of a young daughter, she echoes Pivarnik's advice: pay attention to your doctor and your body.

"Even though my midwife said I could continue high-intensity intervals, it didn't feel right," she recalls. "I felt uncomfortable, even during my first trimester, so I stopped."

"Make sure to do activities that feel good and that help you to fight the first trimester fatigue," she advises. "If you're tired and don't feel like working out, walking is always a great option. Nourish your body and get lots of rest!"

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The Second Trimester

Once you're in your second trimester, you should become a little more vigilant about what posture your body takes during your workout.

"Generally after 20 weeks, many doctors will tell you to avoid positions where you're flat on your back -- in a supine position," says Harney. "Instead, modify by using an incline bench, a stability ball or performing the movements standing with resistance bands. You also want to avoid prone positions (on your stomach), so modify by lying on your side or standing instead."

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Third Trimester

You're in the home stretch! Harney advises avoiding supine and prone positions, as well as twisting motions. Instead stick to standing positions and side-lying positions.

"Walking, flexibility and light strength training is a great combination during the third trimester, " she says.

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Top Exercises for Pregnant Women

Harney encourages moves that assist with stabilization, posture alignment, strengthening the pelvic floor, and core support:

  • Cat/cow
  • Spinal balance
  • Good mornings
  • Planks (good until the belly touches the floor!)
  • Bridges (up until the second trimester)
  • Squats
  • Traditional dumbbell strength exercises (shoulder upright rows, lateral raises, rows, biceps curls, triceps extensions, pushups, either on the floor or with hands against the wall)

As for tools, Harney is pro-belly support belt. "The belt is what helped me teach Zumba up to 38 weeks," she says. "I don't recommend a heart rate monitor, as your cardiac output and heart rate is affected during pregnancy. Instead, go by perceived exertion to gauge your workout intensity."

Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, May 2014.

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