Pregnant women have more than enough to worry about when growing a tiny human—from birthing plans to a zillion product choices—that all of the conflicting fitness and nutrition advice has the potential to send a girl over the edge! But don’t fret. Yes, physical activity, healthful eating, and mindfulness are contributing factors for a healthy pregnancy. But one size does not fit all. To begin creating a good pregnancy health plan, you must start by separating fact from fiction. Then, balance your choices by exploring what works for you.
The book that got me through my pregnancy was “Exercising Through Your Pregnancy” by James Clapp. While published in 2012, the information provided (based on an immense amount of research) is still more forward-thinking and credible than anything I have ever laid eyes on! Truth be told, however, just because Clapp said I could do it, doesn’t mean I did. I had to listen to my body, explore what felt right, or made me feel uncomfortable, and determine what I wanted to do on any given day. And let’s be honest, all of that was tempered with a dose of, “I’m pregnant and I don’t want to!” Here are a few of the main nuggets I learned through my deep exploration of exercise and pregnancy.
Though note: It’s important to heed the advice of your physician. Pregnancy is a precious time with a variety of factors that can influence what you should or shouldn’t be doing. The information below is meant to start a conversation with your physician, not replace the advice s/he has provided.
Myth: If You Haven’t Been Exercising, Don’t Start
Actually, getting started on an exercise plan when you become pregnant is the perfect time! No literature exists that proves moderate activity (such as walking) will do any damage to the baby in a low-risk pregnancy. Quite the opposite is true: inactivity is more of a concern than activity with moms-to-be, because this can lead to unnecessary weight gain, high blood pressure, aches, pains, and higher risk for a Cesarean section and gestational diabetes.
Now, there’s no need to jump up and start training for a marathon. But including some sort of physical activity each day is important. Walking will certainly do the trick for your heart health (and mental health!). You may also want to explore prenatal yoga (look for a certified practitioner specializing in the needs of moms) and resistance training.
Resistance training is an important part of any fitness program, and safe for moms-to-be as well. A 2011 University of Georgia study found that a low-to-moderate-intensity strength program is safe, even for novices, when pregnant. And, you know, you’ll need muscles to lift the growing baby and all the accoutrements that come with the bundle of joy! Definitely learn proper technique and focus on controlled range of motion. Relaxin floods your system when you’re pregnant, leaving your ligaments at risk of “over-stretching.”
Myth: Keep Your Heart Rate Below 140
Chances are someone has warned you to keep your heart rate below 140 BPMs (beats per minute) when exercising and pregnant. Actually, the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) abandoned the target heart rate recommendation years ago, because everyone has different target heart rates. A better recommendation is to focus on your ratings of perceived exertion (RPE). (Read more about ACOG’s recommendation for physical activity here.)
According to the Mayo Clinic, “…for healthy women, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity—preferably spread throughout the week—without any specific heart rate limits.” Thank goodness, because for me, simply walking upstairs shot my heart rate up well over 140; I wouldn’t have been able to do anything including my regular daily activities if the 140 guideline still existed.
A good rule of thumb is to exercise at an intensity where you can carry on a conversation. Of course, if you were exercising at much greater intensities prior to becoming pregnant, there’s room for a bit more (as long as you are experiencing no complications and feeling up to it). And if you experience any vaginal bleeding or unusual signs or symptoms, you should stop exercising and contact your doctor.
Beyond the intensity, monitor your temperature and ventilation while exercising. Early in pregnancy, elevating your core temperature could be damaging to your baby. Be sure to exercise inside if it’s particularly warm outside, and stay hydrated.
Myth: Eat for Two!
You’re growing a human; eat up! This sage advice has been passed down generation after generation, but many have taken great liberty with the recommendation. It’s true, there’s another person inside of you and you must be mindful about what you’re putting in your body as it directly affects the baby’s health. But your baby is itty-bitty—a fraction of the size of an adult. Eating for two, therefore, does not mean doubling your meals!
The recommendation for most women is to consume an extra 300 calories per day during the last six months of pregnancy. Of course, this is not a time to restrict your eating or “diet.” You would run the risk of denying your growing baby the nutrients and calories needed to prosper in the womb. Focus on eating more often throughout the day, hydrating, and choosing the most healthful food that provides the biggest bang for your buck. A combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat should do the trick.
For more information about weight gain and nutrition recommendations, visit womenshealth.gov.
Truth: Trust Your Gut
Last piece of advice from a fitness pro who swore she’d be teaching a cycling class the day her water broke: Plans change and you have to trust your gut. I stopped teaching about 6 weeks into my pregnancy and took up dog walking and yoga. I stayed healthy, but the high intensity exercise went away because it just didn’t feel right for me.
Avoid comparing yourself to other mamma sagas—those moms who try to talk you into or out of exercise. It’s your baby, your body, and you know what’s best. Do what feels good and what will positively impact your life and that of the growing munchkin inside! Your pregnancy is a special time and there will be plenty of time to get back to crushing workouts when your little one arrives. (Well, maybe not right away, but you get the idea.) Congratulations and good luck!