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Best Exercises During Pregnancy

Updated on June 19, 2013

Low-Impact Exercises in Pregnancy

Nature walks and gentle hikes are a wonderful way to stay active, even in late pregnancy.
Nature walks and gentle hikes are a wonderful way to stay active, even in late pregnancy. | Source

Is it Safe to Exercise in Pregnancy?

Many women receive a list of "do's" and "don't's" from their obstetrician or family practitioner in early pregnancy. This list often contains warnings against taking medication, eating certain foods, and against raising one's heart rate over 130-140 beats per minute. Women who want to stay in shape during pregnancy have a hard time finding safe, effective exercise that stays within the limits given by their family doctor.

There are many factors affecting the safety of exercise in pregnancy, including:

  • The physical health of the mother-to-be: are you already in shape and used to exercising, or are you sedentary and just starting an exercise routine?
  • The health of the pregnancy: is this pregnancy high risk or low risk?
  • The stage of the pregnancy: are you in the first, second, or third trimester?
  • What does your doctor say about exercising during pregnancy?

Women who are in shape will have an easier time exercising during pregnancy. Sedentary women should take care to avoid strenuous over-exertion and should slowly acclimate to gentle work-outs rather than pushing the limits of their bodies.

Women in high risk pregnancies, or those who have medical complications, will need to follow the advise of their physician and may need to abstain from all exercise. Women with low-risk pregnancies and no medical complications are generally free to perform moderate exercise in pregnancy.

The first trimester of pregnancy often causes higher heart rates during physical activity, and the heart rate will slow in the second and third trimesters. The third trimester offers a different set of challenges as a woman's center of gravity changes, ligaments loosen, and balance may become a challenge with an increasing belly size.

The most important consideration when determining an exercise routine is your doctor's opinion. Every pregnancy is unique and the risks and benefits of exercise should be discussed with a physician before a new routine is established.

Pregnancy and Exertion

  • Pregnant women should keep exercise in the 12-14 range on the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion.

Heart Rate Limits in Pregnancy

As it turns out, the warning against raising one's heart rate above 140 beats per minute is outdated advice. First instituted by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) in 1985, the rules given for pregnancy included:

  • The mother's heart rate should not exceed 140 beats per minute.
  • The mother's core body temperature should not exceed 100.4°F.
  • The mother should not exercise for more than 15 minutes at a time.

In 2002, the ACOG revised their recommendations and now state that moderate exercise for 30 minutes every day is acceptable for women who have no medical complications. This statement was reaffirmed in 2009.

The mother's heart rate will be highest in the first trimester during exercise, but as fluid volume increases in the second and third trimesters, the heart rate will slow again.

Exercise during pregnancy does not cause any adverse effects to the mother or baby, and results in fewer Cesarean sections (J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 1993 Jul-Aug;22(4):329-35).

Rather than paying attention to heart rate and body temperature, the new recommendation is to use the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion. This scale has ratings from 6 (no exertion) to 20 (extreme exertion).

Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion

No effort (lying in bed)
Very, very light (at rest)
Very light
Fairly light
Somewhat hard
Hard (heavy exertion)
Very hard
Very, very hard

Prenatal Exercise: A Poll

Did you exercise during pregnancy?

See results

Prenatal Yoga

Yoga is a fantastic exercise in pregnancy. Yoga increases balance, coordination, flexibility, and strength. The breathing exercises incorporated into Yoga prepares a mother-to-be for the breathing skills she will need during labor. The exercises are low-impact and gentle to a pregnant woman's joints, even in the third trimester.

Yoga has been proven to lower blood pressure and heart rates. The meditation and breath control help women to lower stress levels, which is good for both mom and baby.

As with all exercise, listen to your body. If a certain position is uncomfortable or doesn't feel right, ask your instructor to offer an alternative position. Women who have been doing Yoga for a long time may need to adjust their routine as the pregnancy progresses. As your pregnancy proceeds, remember:

  • Do not lie flat on your back in the 2nd and 3rd trimester, as this may impede blood flow to the baby.
  • Take care with difficult poses, as your balance will be more difficult to maintain. Do not risk a fall for a King Pigeon pose (a one-legged pose).
  • Do not hold any one pose for an extended period of time. It is important to stay moving to improve blood circulation and to prevent over-stretching ligaments and tendons.

Elliptical Machine

An elliptical machine offers a low-impact aerobic exercise option.
An elliptical machine offers a low-impact aerobic exercise option. | Source

Elliptical Workouts in Pregnancy

An elliptical is a great way to stay in shape during pregnancy. These trainers offer the benefits of walking (or running) with a low impact to the knees. This is a great aerobic exercise to add to a non-aerobic routine (like prenatal yoga).

Elliptical trainers can be found at nearly all gyms and YMCA's. They are fairly inexpensive to purchase for home use, and many models monitor heart rate and the distance traveled. As with all exercise routines, stop the workout if you experience faintness, contractions, or any other signs of over-exertion.

Swimming in Pregnancy

Swimming is one of the best exercises in pregnancy. Swimming exercises the large muscles groups in the arms and legs, provides and aerobic workout, and offers no impact to the joints. Pregnant women often find relief in the weightless environment of a swimming pool.

While pregnant women should not lie on their backs while on dry land, the backstroke is perfectly acceptable in the water: the low-gravity environment prevents compression of the blood vessels. Circulation is not affected, and many women find relief when they swim.

The only negative of swimming during pregnancy is finding a great maternity swimsuit!

Swimming: A Great Exercise for Pregnant Women

Swimming exercises large muscle groups and is low-impact.
Swimming exercises large muscle groups and is low-impact. | Source

Prenatal Dancing

Dancing is a great way to work out in pregnancy, and is fun. Since babies can hear inside the womb at approximately 20 weeks' gestation, they get to enjoy the music, too! As with yoga, women may need to modify their routine to ensure balance: avoid risky dance moves that may result in a fall. Avoid hip-hop style dancing, break dancing, or other styles that involve jumping and jerky motions (this could cause stress to the joints or a fall).

Salsa and ballet classes are ideal for pregnant women, as they avoid harsh movements and increase flexibility while offering an aerobic workout.

Unsafe Exercises in Pregnancy

Horseback riding
Water skiing
Contact sport: risk of injury
Scuba diving
Decompression sickness

Exercises to Avoid in Pregnancy

There are several exercises to avoid in all trimesters of pregnancy. Any activity that is high-impact, overly strenuous, or involves contact with other participants is not advised. In addition, any exercise that requires a woman to lie flat on her back is not advised. Any sport including the following risks should be avoided:

  • Contact sports
  • High altitude (above 8,000 feet), unless acclimatized
  • Scuba diving (the baby cannot be treated for gas embolisms)
  • Falling (including horseback riding and ice skating)
  • Lying flat on your back


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    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, Nicole! I really loved swimming when I was pregnant with my boys. It was such a great way to get exercise without putting too much pressure on my joints!

    • Nicole S profile image

      Nicole S Hanson 

      6 years ago from Minnesota

      Great tips, great hub!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, torrilynn! My OB/Gyn still hands out a guide stating a woman's heart rate should not get above 140 beats per minute, though that information is outdated. Still, women should follow the advice of their physician regarding exercise during pregnancy!

    • torrilynn profile image


      6 years ago

      @leahlefler nice article that you have here. the information you provided seems to be very beneficial to any woman who im pregnant! Voted up and shared!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      I really enjoyed hiking during pregnancy, Practical Mommy. It was one of my favorite activities - getting out into nature and walking was so peaceful, and it got my heart pumping. I have an elliptical now, and will use it if I conceive again. I remember hiking through Letchworth Park when I was about 20 weeks pregnant with my first-born son, and it was such a beautiful place - I made sure not to overdo it, but my labors were both very short and I think exercise helped move things along!

    • ThePracticalMommy profile image


      6 years ago from United States

      Excellent guide of the various exercises that can be done during pregnancy! It's really important to at least do some form of exercise during pregnancy, even if it's just walking to keep the heart pumping and the blood circulating. Exercise also helps to battle fatigue, which is why I try to stay active during this pregnancy as much as possible. :)


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