Exercising while Pregnant: Debunking the Myths
By: Jen Bunn PHD
We have all heard different ideas and concerns about exercising while pregnant, but most of us aren’t quite sure what to believe. Many friends, family, and strangers are willing to offer their (often unsolicited) opinions about what pregnant women should be doing with their bodies. Well, it’s time to debunk some of this “misinformation” with actual facts. Feel free to use this information for both encouragement for exercise while pregnant, as well as ammo for fighting off those unwanted opinions. Please note that these recommendations are meant for low-risk pregnancies. If you have a high-risk pregnancy, be sure to consult with your physician prior to exercise participation.
Myth: Exercising when you are pregnant will make you have a miscarriage.
While miscarriages happen far more frequently than most people know (approximately 10-20% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage), they are usually a result of a chromosomal problem and have nothing to do with maternal behavior during the early weeks of pregnancy. In fact, no difference in the risk of miscarriage for physically active pregnant women and sedentary pregnant women.
Myth: You should keep your heart rate below 140 beats per minute.
Ugh. This recommendation is so outdated it is silly that it even comes up anymore. The current guidelines on exercise for pregnant women include heart rate recommendations based upon age, pre-pregnancy body weight, and fitness status.
Don’t have a heart rate monitor to work with? No problem! As long as you can maintain a conversation without getting too out of breath during your workout, then you are fine. With or without a heart rate monitor, it is also a good idea to always listen to your body. If you experience, cramping, pain, or excess fatigue (just to name a few symptoms) then stop or slow your activity until the symptoms subside. If they worsen or don’t go away, be sure to see your doctor.
Myth: You shouldn’t lift more than 20-25 pounds.
So if you are pregnant with your second child and you have a toddler, then you aren’t able to carry them? Seriously? Much like that of the heart rate recommendation, this idea is antiquated and trivial. Realistically, it is a good idea to avoid lifting very heavy loads while you are pregnant, but that doesn’t mean that you are limited to no more than 25 pounds. If you lift weights while you are pregnant (kudos to you!), the general rule of thumb is to start to take weight off as you progress through pregnancy and increase your repetitions to maintain your training volume. You will also want to be sure you have good technique during each lift and that you breathe properly. This includes exhaling while your muscles are shortening (usually moving the weight against gravity) and inhaling while your muscles are lengthening (usually moving the weight with gravity). It is also key to avoid performing a Valsalva maneuver, or holding your breath, during any part of the lift.
Myth: If you didn’t exercise before becoming pregnant, don’t start now.
Exercising while pregnant has so many benefits to both the mother and baby, one would be remiss not to do it. If you aren’t used to exercising or are unsure of even where to start, just start walking. An easy walk at a conversational pace for 15 minutes is a great place to start, and your goal is to work your way up to at least 30 minutes.
Jennifer Bunn holds a doctorate in exercise physiology and is a professor at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC.