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Fitness For Pregnancy And Birth

Updated on January 18, 2018

Are you pregnant or just thinking about being pregnant? Are you wondering if you can continue with an exercise programme? Can I start an exercise programme if I have never really exercised before?

Health benefits of exercise are well documented and, with changing attitudes, women want to continue their exercise programmes well into their pregnancies, many up to the day they give birth. Quite often when a woman discovers she is pregnant it is the first time she addresses her total health, emotionally, nutritionally and physiologically.

Exercise during pregnancy is a growing trend and is now being recommended by health professionals as an important aspect of pregnancy health, often prescribed as an intervention for some common complications of pregnancy and the post birth period.

There is now more research available confirming the gains of exercise, most notable by Dr James Clapp an American professor of reproductive biology. He is the author of 'Exercising Through Your Pregnancy', a must if you are feeling confused or anxious about how much you should or should not be doing. It is also a valuable reference source for prescription if you are an exercise teacher.

During pregnancy there are many physiological changes that will undoubtedly affect the individuals capacity to exercise and should be acknowledged to ensure safety for the mother and her baby.


The blood volume increases by 30% to 45% allowing for the dissipation of heat. One of the major concerns is that the rise of the body's core temperature in the first 12 weeks may result in an increase in neural tube defects. By wearing loose clothing, keeping well hydrated, and avoiding exercise in hot humid conditions, or at least reducing the intensity, the core temperature will not be elevated to dangerous levels. Prolonged elevation of core temperature, as would be experienced with an infection, is more of a risk.

The resting heart rate (HR) increases by 8-20 beats per minute (BPM), blood pressure decreases and hormones of pregnancy cause the blood vessels to soften and stretch to allow for the extra 30% to 45% in blood volume. As a result a sluggish system can result in varicosity (Piles, varicose veins). In the early weeks the under fill, the time lag between the lax vessels being filled with the extra blood can result in a woman feeling pretty exhausted and having a preoccupation for bed until her body has caught up. It is a feeling similar to shock and generally this will disappear by 12 to 16 weeks pregnant.

As can be imagined even the most ardent of exercisers will experience difficulties if affected by under fill, so listen to your body and avoid pushing yourself to extremes. This note of caution would apply for the whole pregnancy.


Changes in the respiratory system often result in breathlessness, particularly later in the pregnancy due to restrictions of the diaphragm. The growing baby and uterus take up the available space, so the diaphragm has to work hard to contract, therefore reducing the intake of oxygen (O2) for the activity needs. As a result of this the pregnant exerciser will need to breathe faster. The consumption of O2 increases during pregnancy. With the advancing weeks of pregnancy, extra weight gain, change in the centre of mass (lowered) and extra O2 cost during activity will greatly affect the pregnant woman's ability to exercise. So as the weeks advance she can quite happily continue to be active, but she will have to change or modify her programme. For example if she steps, reduce the height of the step, lower intensities, avoid over complex moves and severe changes of direction, this will enable her to continue safely.


A pregnant woman at rest will require 300 extra calories (Kcal) for the growth of the foetus, if she exercises she will need additional Kcal and the metabolic cost of exertion will be influenced by the woman's weight and the intensity of the exercise. Some women will continue to exercise at high intensities well into their pregnancies, Liz McColgan, Sharron Davies and Sonia Sullivan, to name three well known athletes. The important factor to remember, is that pregnancy exercise is very individual, every pregnancy is unique and every day is different with changing emotional and physiological needs.


Progesterone and relaxin have an effect on the ligaments that support the joints, softening these strap like supports. This laxity makes the joint mobile and more prone to injury, a frequent discomfort is hyper-mobility of the sacro-illiac joint (area around the sacrum). Again this will be individual, some women having more problems than others.

These are just a few of the pregnancy changes in brief detail, and at a first glance appear to be all negative. Understanding of pregnancy physiology and psychology enables exercise teachers to prescribe safe programmes for women of all fitness levels. This, in turn, allows women to enjoy and enhance their pregnancies and general well being. I have listed some DOs and DON'Ts for pregnancy exercise.

DOs & DON'Ts


  • Check with a health professional before you begin. Are you low risk/no contraindications to exercise?
  • Seek advice from a qualified exercise teacher.
  • Keep well hydrated (preferably drinking plenty of water) ยท Rest well. This is as important as the exercise itself.
  • Listen to your body. Internal feedback is very important
  • Eat extra Kcals. This should e around 300 per day plus the Kcals used for the activity itself
  • Try to consume a small snack approximately, 1 hour before you exercise
  • Wear light, loose clothing. This way you can remove layers as you become warmer and help you to stay cool


  • Exercise if you feel unwell, particularly if you have a fever. If it is a pregnancy issue consult a health professional.
  • Exercise to exhaustion.
  • Exercise in hot humid conditions. Change the time of day/venue to help you to stay as cool as possible.
  • Exercise flat on your back, general rule after 20 weeks but is individual.
  • Start a new activity i.e. jogging, impact sports if you have never participated before. This is not a time to embark on a rigorous exercise regime to get fit for pregnancy. Exercise should be used to enhance your well being during this exciting time.


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