Exercise During Pregnancy

Exercise is any activity in which you must exert a physical effort in order to perform well. Usually, people, including pregnant women, engage in exercise for recreational purposes, to improve their physical fitness and health, or for a combination of both of these reasons. Of course, if you are a Ninja Warrior, or some other type of professional, or semi-professional athlete, you may also be performing exercise to gain income. Regardless of its purpose, exercise carries both potential harms and potential benefits when you are not pregnant, and also during pregnancy. As one important example, it has been proposed that exercise may help to prevent certain pregnancy complications. Examples of pregnancy complications that exercise may mitigate include peripartum depression (a mood disorder, in which depressive features, such features of major depressive disorder [MDD], or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), dominate and develop close to the time of labor and delivery, and often persist after delivery), gestational diabetes, and a condition involving multiple body systems called preeclampsia. Research has not yet demonstrated such benefits of exercise consistently during pregnancy, but the case for a benefit is much stronger if the exercise is begun before pregnancy. And so, being fit as part of a continuing process that has already included exercise is something that can help once you become pregnant.

How much should you exercise during pregnancy? Studies suggest that moderate exercise can decrease your risk of developing mood disorders around the time of delivery (peripartum depression). However, different studies suggest different amounts of times (1-2 times per week in a certain study versus 4 times per week in a different study) as providing benefits. Regular exercise also is thought to help reduce the risk of developing gestational diabetes. Doctors also think that exercise improves circulation to the fetus, while also improving the mother’s fitness for delivery, and helps in regulation the mother’s blood pressure. You do not need to worry about over-exercising, since, pregnant women, generally, do not get enough exercise. Nor should you worry about exercise keeping you from getting pregnant in the first place. In most cases, exercise improves your fitness. Only in cases of extreme levels and amount of exercise, as occurs in high performance athletes, and often as a component of anorexia nervosa, is the ovulation cycle suppressed. Such cases are not the norm, but certainly illustrate how extreme exercise can affect fertility. Despite some concern expressed by pregnant women and by some health care providers that exercise might cause spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), there is no evidence of a connection between exercise and miscarriage. Exercise during pregnancy also does not cause birth defects, nor have studies revealed any other long-term negative consequences.

Overall, it is thought that pregnant women do not exercise enough. On top of this, there is some evidence that moderate exercise during pregnancy, a few days per week, can help women to maintain health and to avoid pregnancy complications. Thus, exercise may improve the chances that you’ll deliver a healthy baby. You should perform moderate exercise throughout pregnancy. You also should exercise while breastfeeding after you have delivered your child. To be sure, you must wait a certain amount of time after giving birth before you resume exercise, depending on your fitness level before and during pregnancy, and on the method by which you gave birth. After giving birth vaginally, many women can begin regular exercise within a couple to a few weeks. Those who exercise regularly while pregnant can begin sooner while others require more time. After a cesarean section, it is generally recommended that you wait six weeks, and as with vaginal delivery, mothers who are in better physical shape, having exercised throughout pregnancy, will be able to resume exercise sooner than others. It is a good idea to take an exercise class that is designed specifically for pregnant and lactating women.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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