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You probably can start an exercise program during pregnancy, even if you've been a dedicated couch potato until now. Just be sure to review your plan with your healthcare provider and get her go-ahead before you begin.
Keep in mind that pregnancy isn't the time to try to lose weight, nor is it a good idea to begin a high-intensity exercise routine if you were previously inactive. But if you aren't in any high-risk categories, you can start an exercise program that's appropriate for your fitness level. A reasonable goal is to work up to 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most or all days of the week, as recommended by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Tips for getting started
Go slowly at first. Exercise for just 10 to 15 minutes a day for the first week or two. When you feel ready to do more, add five to 10 minutes until you work up to 20 or 30 minutes a day. This can take three or four weeks, depending on how your body responds to the additional activity. During this initial period, focus on lengthening – not intensifying – your workouts.
Do more when you're ready. If you've reached your goal workout length and you're feeling pretty good, you can increase the intensity of your workout. For example, you could boost your walking pace from moderate to brisk.
However, don't go for the burn, and don't exercise to exhaustion. Listen to your body and don't push yourself beyond your limits. ACOG advises that you exercise with an intensity that you'd describe as "somewhat hard." A good rule of thumb: Slow down if you can't carry on a conversation comfortably.
Eat well. Being pregnant means you need approximately 340 extra calories a day starting in the second trimester, depending on your pre-pregnancy weight. The quality of your diet is tremendously important, so include lots of fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and lean protein sources.
Stay cool. Avoid working out in hot, humid weather because you can overheat more easily during pregnancy. Aim to exercise in the morning or after 4 p.m. to avoid peak temperatures. If it's warm out, wear a sun hat and layers of loose, comfortable clothing.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Drink water before, during, and after your workout. Dehydration can contribute to overheating or even trigger contractions. If you're well hydrated, the color of your urine will be almost clear. If it's dark yellow, drink more water.
Protect your skin. If you're planning to exercise outside, be sure to wear sunblock because pregnancy can make your skin more sensitive to the sun and worsen melasma – a condition in which blotchy areas of darkened skin appear.
Best pregnancy exercises for beginners
If you're pregnant and new to exercise, consider:
- Walking. This activity gets top honors for expectant mothers because it's safe, easy to do, and improves your cardiovascular fitness. It's the perfect way to get started if you didn't exercise before pregnancy.
- Aerobics classes or fitness DVDs. Programs designed for pregnant women strengthen your heart and build muscle tone and flexibility – all of which work together to support your body as it undergoes the physical changes of pregnancy.
- Swimming. This is a great form of exercise because it uses your whole body and puts little strain on your joints. An added bonus: The water supports your weight, giving you a temporary reprieve from feeling ungainly as your belly gets bigger.
- Prenatal yoga and stretching. Both ease tension, promote relaxation, and help you stay flexible and strong.
- Dancing. Moving to music you enjoy keeps you limber and gives you a great cardiovascular workout. Styles such as Zumba, belly dancing, and ballroom dancing are fun ways to exercise that can be modified as your belly expands.
More safe pregnancy exercises
If you're wondering whether it's safe to begin running during pregnancy, the answer is usually yes if you have an uncomplicated pregnancy and the approval of your provider – even if you've never tried running before. Just remember to start slowly: Warm up for five to 10 minutes by stretching and walking, then run at a slow and comfortable pace for about five minutes. Cool down by walking for another five to 10 minutes.
If your joints don't hurt and you feel able to do more, you can gradually pick up the pace and start running for longer stretches. Later in pregnancy, you may need to modify your routine or slow down to accommodate your growing belly.
Weight training and other exercises that involve standing in place for long periods can reduce the blood flow to your baby. To do them safely, keep moving by changing positions or simply by stepping back and forth.
Also, approach bike riding with caution. Experienced cyclists should be able to ride throughout the first trimester, but some experts consider it dangerous to bike during your second and third trimesters because your shifting center of gravity affects your balance, making falls more likely. A stationary exercise bike is a safer option later in pregnancy.
Learn more about exercising safely during pregnancy.
Stay in shape, and practice important breathing techniques for labor and birth, with prenatal yoga. In these videos, we show you how to do the cat stretch and 9 more yoga poses during pregnancy.
Types of exercise to avoid during pregnancy
- Activities with potential for hard falls. Horseback riding, downhill skiing, snowboarding, surfing, off-road biking, gymnastics, and waterskiing are off-limits to pregnant women.
- Activities with a lot of sudden changes in direction. Your center of gravity shifts during pregnancy, so avoid activities that require a lot of sudden changes in direction, such as most racquet sports. They can throw you off balance and make you fall.
- High-contact sports, such as soccer, basketball, boxing, and ice hockey.
- Activities involving extremes in air pressure, such as scuba diving and exercise at altitudes above 6,000 feet. (Mild to moderate exercise should be fine for women who live above 6,000 feet and are already acclimated.)
- Activities done while lying on your back. After the first trimester, avoid sit-ups and other exercises done while lying flat on your back because this position can lower blood flow to your uterus and throughout your body.
Signs to slow down
If you're new to exercising, it can be hard to recognize when you're pushing yourself too hard. Tone down your exercise routine if:
- You feel pain in your joints and ligaments during or after a workout.
- You feel exhausted instead of energized after a workout.
- You're too out of breath to carry on a conversation.
- Your muscles feel extremely sore, weak, or shaky for a long period after exercising. This may even affect your balance.
- Your resting heart rate in the morning is more than 10 beats higher than normal.
For more signs that you may be exercising too hard, read our article on pregnancy exercise warning signs.
Danger signs: Stop and call your provider
Some warning signs could signal a problem with your health or the pregnancy. Stop exercising immediately and contact your doctor or midwife if you have any of the following symptoms:
- vaginal bleeding
- contractions (preterm labor)
- fluid leaking (or gushing) from your vagina
- dizziness or feeling faint
- chest pain
- calf pain or swelling
- decreased fetal movement