How to Exercise Safely During Pregnancy

During pregnancy, your body is working overtime to sustain you and your growing baby. Even a simple task like going to the grocery store can feel like an Olympic sport.

With your body going through so many changes and tiring more easily, is it safe to exercise during pregnancy?

Absolutely, says Mary Hale, a certified personal trainer with UNC Wellness Centers—just as long as you were working out before you became pregnant, your pregnancy is not high-risk and you have the go-ahead from your obstetric provider. But your workouts might look a little different from before, and some movements are better for pregnancy than others.

Here, Hale answers some common questions.

Why should I exercise during pregnancy?

Working out during pregnancy helps women stay healthy and keep up their stamina for labor and delivery. Exercise can help:

  • Prevent gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and cesarean birth
  • Promote healthy weight gain
  • Strengthen core and pelvic floor muscles in preparation for labor and delivery
  • Boost mood and energy levels
  • Ease constipation

How much should I exercise?

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that pregnant women get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week, or 30 minutes for five days a week. Moderate intensity means moving enough to raise your heart rate and start sweating.

And you don’t have to do those 30 minutes all at once. “Instead of brisk walking on the treadmill for 30 minutes straight, you could break it up into smaller walks throughout the day,” Hale says.

If you start to experience bleeding or fluid leaking from the vagina, dizziness, chest pain, calf pain or swelling, or contractions, stop exercising and contact your doctor.

What exercises are safe to do?

Think low impact, meaning exercises that elevate the heart rate through gentle motions. Low-impact exercises that are safe during pregnancy include walking, swimming, bicycling on a stationary bike, modified yoga or Pilates, some aerobics classes, and light, modified resistance training (weightlifting).

Most aerobics classes can be made low impact through modification, even step aerobics. The key is to have an instructor who is aware you are pregnant and can therefore help you to modify the workout. TRX classes would be a good example.

And don’t forget the benefits of working out in the pool.

“Depending on how deep the water is, it absorbs about 85 percent of your body weight, making it extremely low-impact,” Hale says. “The water provides natural resistance, helping to strengthen your muscles and improve endurance.”

Body-weight squats are also beneficial to prepare the pelvic floor for birth, Hale says.

What exercises should I avoid?

Avoid any contact sports that put you at risk of getting hit in the stomach, including volleyball, soccer and basketball. Also avoid exercises that pose a risk of falling, such as gymnastics and horseback riding, Hale says.

Additionally, any activities that involve jumping, skipping or otherwise generating a lot of momentum can put too much weight on the spine.

Jogging is not recommended past the second trimester, Hale says. Although if you are an experienced runner, jogger or racquet sports player, you may be able to continue those activities during pregnancy. Talk to your doctor first.

You’ll also want to avoid any moves that require you to hold your breath or bear down. Most people won’t have a problem with this during cardiovascular exercise; but holding your breath can happen with strength training.

“Lifting too heavy will result in people bearing down to get the weight up,” Hale says. “Taking deep breaths throughout each repetition will avoid this problem.”

What if I didn’t exercise before pregnancy?

Beginning exercise when you’re pregnant is fine, but if you weren’t regularly exercising before becoming pregnant, now is not the time to start lifting heavy weights. Walking, using a stationary bike or elliptical at the gym, and taking water aerobics are great exercises for beginners, Hale says.

Make sure to start slowly, exercising as little as five minutes a day, the ACOG recommends. Then add five minutes each week until you can stay active for 30 minutes a day.

“When in doubt about anything, talk to an exercise professional for guidance,” Hale says.

Will exercise feel different during pregnancy?

You can expect to feel fatigued and winded quicker during pregnancy, even while doing the same workouts you did before you were pregnant.

“You’re expending more energy than usual because you’re sharing nutrients with your growing baby,” Hale says. “So even if you do an exercise you have done many times before, you are burning more calories now because you are exerting yourself and feeding the baby, too. Also, you have a much higher blood volume during pregnancy, so your heart is working harder to manage the extra pressure.”

You might also experience increased muscle soreness, since your body weight is distributed differently.

And you may notice that you feel more flexible. That’s because during pregnancy, your body produces more of a hormone called relaxin, which helps soften the connective tissue in your joints to make room for baby and prepare for birth.

Because the relaxin makes your joints more mobile, it’s important to practice good form during your workouts to avoid injury, Hale says.

Can I do abdominal exercises?

Many people assume you should avoid abdominal work while pregnant, but that is not true, Hale says. Strengthening your core helps you physically prepare for giving birth and can also help prevent diastasis recti, a condition in which your abs separate down the middle as your belly grows.

“Many women who have exercised throughout pregnancy and strengthened their core experience a faster delivery and are able to recover quicker from both vaginal deliveries and C-sections,” Hale says. “It’s important to keep the core stabilized, especially during the third trimester, so the abs aren’t prompted to separate.”

To do this, avoid traditional crunches or situps (especially past the first trimester) and instead focus on functional movements, such as planks. Planks can be done throughout pregnancy. As your belly gets bigger, you may need to come off your forearms and up to an extended-arm plank. Place a pillow under your body just in case you can’t hold the position.

Hale also recommends pelvic tilts. A pelvic tilt is where you lay on the floor or a bed with knees bent and tilt the pelvis by pushing your lower back into the ground and then releasing. Pelvic tilts also help strengthen the pelvic floor.

Avoid any ab exercises that involve twisting your torso while seated, which can crowd the baby’s space.

One of the best core exercises during pregnancy is one that anyone can do and doesn’t require any equipment: brisk walking.

Make sure to pump your arms and take care not to overdo it. “You should be able to talk to someone, even if it is breathy,” Hale says.

Where do I go if I need help or have questions?

If you don’t belong to a gym, ask your obstetric provider for recommendations.

“There are many exercise classes for pregnant women that instructors have to be certified to teach,” Hale says. “If you do belong to a gym, have a conversation with any of the personal trainers. Many of them, including all trainers at UNC Wellness Centers, have an exercise science background and would be able to help you answer a wide range of questions.”

Looking for an obstetric provider? Find one near you. Need a personal trainer? Find one at UNC Rex Wellness Centers and UNC Wellness Centers.