At a British 10K charity run last year, a blonde with sunglasses and a slew of world records jogged easily among the 11,000 other runners who'd shown up that day. Olympic marathoner Paula Radcliffe crossed the finish line with a huge smile on her face, despite being a whopping 15 minutes off her best time for the distance.
The ultra-competitive Radcliffe, who at the time was seven months' pregnant with her second daughter, told reporters after the race that she "wasn't concerned about running a time, it was about enjoying the day."
But the day was also about staying in shape; though Radcliffe toned down her training during pregnancy, her ultimate goal was to make the 2012 British Olympic team. (She qualified at the Berlin Marathon in September.)
Back in the 1950s and 1960s — before the jogging and aerobics boom hit the U.S. and thousands of health clubs dotted the land — exercise during pregnancy was rarely discussed. These days, pregnant women are packing prenatal yoga and low-impact aerobics classes. They're swimming, biking and running — and, yes, they're occasionally lining up at a race near you.
"The benefits of exercise during pregnancy are tremendous," says Dr. Raul Artal, author of the exercise and pregnancy guidelines for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or ACOG, and chairman of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women's Health at St. Louis University.
"Pregnancy shouldn't be a state of confinement. I consider it an ideal time to start engaging in physical activity," Artal says. For a healthy pregnant woman, ACOG recommends at least 150 minutes a week of exercise, preferably in 30-minute bouts — although shorter bouts of 15 minutes are OK, says Artal.
Healthy nonexercisers with a normal pregnancy should start slowly (like any new exerciser). ACOG recommends starting with five minutes a day and adding five minutes a week to reach the 30-minute-a-day mark. Walking, swimming or aquacise classes and low-impact/gentle aerobics are great options for beginners.
A previously active woman who's healthy and has a normal pregnancy can usually continue what she's doing, but at a less-intense level. (She shouldn't be short of breath at any point during exercise.)
What do the 30-minute bouts of exercise bring? According to ACOG, they can help reduce backaches, constipation, bloating and swelling; may help prevent gestational diabetes; increase energy, improve mood and posture; promote muscle tone, strength and endurance; and help you sleep better.
Women who should not exercise, says Artal, are those with significant heart disease, those with risk factors for preterm labor or risk of bleeding and women with poorly controlled Type 1 diabetes. Other women — such as those with severe anemia, severe obesity or high blood pressure — should talk to their doctor before starting an exercise program and do it under a doctor's supervision.
The talk test
Neal Pire, a fitness educator and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, has noticed a huge change in attitude from both pregnant clients and the medical profession over the past few decades. Pire, based in Bergen County, N.J., cites the old ACOG restriction that pregnant women never let their heart rates go above 140. That number's no longer valid, he says.
Now women are being advised to follow the "talk test." Basically, if you're exercising and you get to the point where you're short of breath and finding it difficult to hold a conversation, back off, explains Dr. James Pivarnik, Director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health, Michigan State University. "If the shortness of breath continues, stop the exercise," he says.
"Usually the moms who are active before pregnancy can continue their exercise routine up until birth," Pire says. "If they're starting a program they should start as any basic exerciser should — slow and gradual."
"If you're a moderate exerciser before pregnancy — doing walking, low-impact aerobics and moderate weights, for example — you should not start doing a spin class and upping your heart rate to 200 and adding plyometrics and heavy lifting. That's a whole different animal," Pire says. "Don't start anything new that's dramatically more intense than what you've been doing."
Exercise physiologist and trainer Karen Merrill, who trained for a marathon while pregnant, has pregnant clients who use kettlebells, TRX (suspension training bands) and other challenging fitness tools, but only if they've used them before pregnancy.
"My clients don't want to give those things up when they're pregnant, but they need to have a good sense of balance and a strong core," says Merrill, a mother of two and spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise. "As a trainer, you look at each pregnant woman individually, assess what her strengths are, and design a program based on that. Even then, there are going to be changes as the pregnancy progresses."
As for concerns about running, Pivarnik says, "There is no evidence to suggest that running does any harm to the growing fetus. The uterine environment is amazingly efficient at cushioning any blows that might occur, so jostling is not an issue.
Exercise: A pregnant pause
For almost every woman, there's no need to stop exercising when you're pregnant. But you may need to adjust your intensity and avoid certain high-impact sports.
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